Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
June 28, 2009
In the forward to William Sloane Coffin’s book Credo (Westminster Press, 2004), James Carroll tells one of my favorite stories about Bill Coffin. It was 1972. James Carroll, Bill Coffin, and a host of other war protestors had been arrested for trespassing at the U.S. Capitol. The drama and adrenalin of the protest and subsequent arrests had dissipated and it was night and it was jail, and the protestors were locked in separate cells. Into the silence, Bill began to sing Handel’s Messiah, all of it, the whole, magnificent work. Others joined in from time-to-time, singing the parts they could remember, but Bill sang it all and the frightening, dark jail was filled with God’s music.
Ernie exacted a promise from me that we would not celebrate this 10th anniversary of his music ministry with us during worship. I don’t make many promises to Ernie. In fact, other than this one, I think the last promise I made to him was that we would get a new organ in our sanctuary in his lifetime. But though I promised not to make Ernie’s 10th anniversary the centerpoint of our worship, the occasion has prompted me to think about how music bears our faith in timeless and transcendent ways.
I remember the first solo I sang for a music contest when I was just 13 years old – a really strange poem from the book of Revelation. I remember the hymns we sang at my wedding and my ordination. I remember singing a verse of “Nearer My God to Thee” as a solo when my older sister was made honored queen in Job’s Daughters. I remember singing “Blessed Assurance” when I felt neither blessed or assured at an annual meeting in Indiana. I used to sing “Joy to the World” in my screechiest operatic voice to my easily embarrassed children. And I remember singing “I Gave my Love a Cherry” and “Dona, Dona, Dona” as lullabies to them. I remember singing rounds when I was a child on family car trips and canoeing songs at camp, and “Come Where the Lilies Bloom” at family reunions. I sang country western songs in a bar to earn money for seminary, and hymns to keep myself awake when I was driving late at night. When I am sad, a line from a hymn penetrates the gloom. When I think I’ve made a colossal mistake in a sermon, I comfort myself by remembering that three hymns will carry God’s message that day. When I am myself walking through the valley of the shadow of death, it won’t be God’s rod and God’s staff that comfort me, but rather God’s music, the music of faith.
So this Psalm, number 137, is confusing to me. I know the psalmist is angry. It’s clear that the psalmist is despairing over exile, the taunting of enemies. The refusal to sing is a refusal to entertain the captors, to make the Lord’s song into something to be ridiculed. I will not sing the Lord’s song in this strange land, he declares. But isn’t that exactly when the psalmist should sing? Isn’t that when the song of God’s magnificence and God’s justice should ring out? Was there no song of confession to be sung? No asking for God’s presence, God’s forgiveness, God’s protection? The song of Zion, had it been sung then, right then, would that not have strengthened the psalmist’s resolve? His witness? His faith?
Once, many years ago, when I was still very new to ministry, I attended an ordination ecclesiastical council, which, in simpler terms, was a public examination of a person’s fitness and readiness for ministry. The Committee on Ministry had brought the candidate to the association for examination. Behind me sat an older minister who was on the Committee on Ministry, and before me, several pews down and to the right sat another committee member. The candidate being reviewed was not an obvious slam-dunk. He was, in the words of a former conference minister, “modesty gifted”. The examination was long and contentious and the split within the Committee on Ministry became apparent with the minister behind me on one side and the minister before me on the other. Finally a vote was called. I have no recollection how the vote came out. And I can’t remember a single thing about the candidate himself. What I do remember, as clearly as if it happened yesterday, is that when the moderator asked the minister behind me to offer the closing prayer, he refused, saying, tell so and so (the minister in front of me) to pray. I was appalled. Both those ministers were older and wiser, I thought. They had both been leaders in the Church for years. And because of, what, a public squabble, a revealing of a fault line in the committee’s process, an irritating disagreement, one of those ministers refused to pray?
Human emotion is a powerful experience. Anger, despair, sorrow, even pique, can overwhelm us completely and make us say and do harmful things – harmful to others, harmful to ourselves, harmful to God. And most unfortunate, often we justify our harmful behavior by those very emotions themselves, as if there is nothing better to which we can aspire, no better hope, no loftier goal. How idolatrous of us, how vain, how incredibly, selfishly, childishly faithless.
Those of you familiar with the Psalms, noticed that I stopped reading Psalm 137 before its conclusion. The psalm takes a vicious turn. “Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’ O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
Hmmm, revenge, the slaughter of innocents, the righteous indignation of a singer who didn’t get what he was certain God wanted for him and instead, in an angry self-indulgent rant, “I’ll show them, I’ll wish death to their children and I won’t sing any of God’s songs!” It reminds me of the words written by Isaac Watts in 1707, “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God; But favorites of the heavenly King may speak their joys abroad, may speak their joys abroad.” (Marching to Zion)
It’s always tempting to hang up our harps, take our toys and refuse to play, withhold our songs, our prayers, our full participation in the music of the spheres. But to what end? And to whose glory? Not God’s, of that I’m certain.
May the Lord’s song be ever on our tongues, heavenly music in our throats, the rhythms of the universe in our hands and feet, and the melody of God in our hearts. Amen.