Thursday, April 02, 2009

When In Doubt, Sing: A Lenten Meditation

Psalm 69:16-36, Colossians 3:12-17
April 1, 2009

There was a young woman… a college student… a child of the decade before the sexual revolution. Coming of age as she did in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, she found herself in just about the worst circumstance a young unmarried girl could in those days: She was pregnant. She was pregnant, and the young man with whom she was in love had no interest in marrying her or even acknowledging his role in fathering the child.

So, this young woman—let’s call her Katie—she was sent away, an experience many young women of that day shared. Her parents sent her to a town several states away. They told the neighbors she was spending her junior year in Europe. In fact, she was in Wilkes-Barre, PA, living with a family who she didn’t know, and who didn’t know her. She was Roman Catholic, they were 7th-Day Adventist. She was used to city life, they were comfortably suburban. She dreamed of pursuing a career as a professor or a doctor, and they were suspicious of folks—especially women—who were “over-educated.” But they agreed on one thing: she was not a good girl, not by the codes of that day. She was ashamed of her predicament, and they agreed thoroughly. She should be ashamed.

Katie talks of the long expanse of her pregnancy in Wilkes-Barre as a wilderness time, a time of complete and utter dislocation and desolation and wondering if she had somehow wandered outside the fold of God’s love and care. But there was an experience in which she was able to recapture that sense of being loved by God. Each day she would take a long walk, at the end of which she would find herself at the same church, left open during the lunch hour so that people could come in and pray. Katie was always completely alone there. So she would walk in, and she would start to sing.

She would sing hymns, and songs, and spirituals. When she ran out of ideas of what to sing she would open the church’s songbook and sing the hymns she found in there. She would sing her heart out for an hour every day, until a young clergyman would slip in, and she would know the church was about to be locked again, and she would turn and walk out the door, back to the house full of strangers.

There come times in our lives when words fail us, when prayers feel rote or dry or unproductive or even impossible. Sometimes this is the result of a crisis… illness, injury, depression. The loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, separation, divorce. For many people, when this happens, they may struggle to pray. They may lose a sense of themselves in prayer, find that they are simply unable to speak to God and to listen to God in the same way. But sometimes their hearts can find their way to prayer again in song.

The narrator of the psalm is in the midst of such a moment. The words of the psalm describe someone who is under siege, under attack—perhaps literally, from an enemy army; perhaps figuratively—it may be his reputation that is being harmed rather than his body or troops. But he is calling out to God in distress, in desperation, in the very brokenness of his heart. And for a while, his urge to strike back dominates the psalm… he asks God to blot out his enemies from the book of the living.

And then, abruptly, his heart turns a corner. “I will praise the name of God with a song,” says this person, who appears to have little to sing about. “I will magnify him with thanksgiving,” he proclaims, he who seems to have nothing for which to give thanks.

Sometimes, with regard to prayer, words fail us. The only way we can pray is through music. If you think about it, this makes sense, for at least three reasons. First, music has the ability to reach us on a level that goes beyond words, to the place where our feelings reside. The sound of a beloved melody can open our confused or hurting hearts in a way reciting a prayer or even trying to speak our own words sometimes cannot.

Second, most of us learn our faith, first, through music. Our hymnals are important, not simply because they contain wonderful, singable melodies, but because they are packed full with theology. We learn about God by singing things like

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.


Immortal, invisible, God only wise
in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.

We learn about God in our sacred music, and when we are at a loss for words, when we can’t even imagine praying to God, these hymns surface for us, like lifejackets on a stormy sea. One morning when my life was pretty much in a shambles and I couldn’t even think straight I heard myself singing,

On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand …

It was a prayer. It was God’s way of giving me a prayer when I couldn’t manage, with my own intentions and language, to find a way to pray. This is the third reason. As Presbyterians we believe in a God who is Sovereign, that all that is good and holy happens at God’s initiation. In other words, when we pray, we are really not the ones who are initiating it. All prayer happens as a result of God’s initiation. God prompts us. God suggests it to us. Sometimes, God literally puts a song in our mouths, a song of prayer and praise to God.

The title of this meditation also happens to be the title of a fantastic book on prayer, written by a friend of mine. Much of, not only this meditation, but our whole Lenten series, has been influenced by her work. In her chapter on ‘Music as Prayer,’ Jane Redmont shares a poem, by a 13th century Persian poet and mystic. I leave you with this as the last word in our series on prayer:

God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us,
a passion, a longing pain.
Remember the lips
Where the wind-breath originated,
and let your note be clear.
Don’t try to end it.
Be your note.
I’ll show you how it’s enough.

Go up on the roof at night
in this city of the soul.

Let everyone climb on their roofs
and sing their notes!
Sing loud! [1]

Tell me: what hymns are prayers to you? Let’s sing some of them together now.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Jelaluddin Rumi, as quoted in Jane Redmont, When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life (New York: Sorin Books, 1999, 2008), 308.


Songbird said...

Beautiful, Mags.

Choralgirl said...

Oh, Mags. Terrific. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

It is certainly interesting for me to read that post. Thanx for it. I like such themes and everything connected to this matter. I would like to read a bit more on that blog soon.

Anonymous said...

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