There is, simply, power in music that cannot be ignored.
The chords, the lyrics and the tempo of songs mix together in an indescribable way which buoy our souls and give us strength for the journey, no matter how difficult and painful that journey might be.
I was struck in studying how students, on their way to Mississippi where eventually, Goodwin, Schwerner and Chaney were murdered by white mobsters, sang, “Hallelujah! I’m a travelin, Hallelujah! Ain’t it fine? Hallelujah! I’m a travelin, Down freedom’s main line.” (to the tune of “Revive us again)
I remember thinking of the words of Psalm 137, where the exiled Israelites mourned the loss of their Jerusalem. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willow 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!” And the displaced, despondent Israelites, asked, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
But it is the singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, in a land which so often has been hostile to the cause of justice and righteousness, which has saved many of us. In the midst of our most abject pain, a song has been lifted up, maybe quietly by one person, but, if heard, grabbed onto by others. The music gets into our scraped and raw sores, gotten from fighting injustice for so long, and it soothes, it empowers and it encourages. That is power.
No matter how bad things are, music is always there, free for the taking. It can jostle us from depression to hope. It can move us from darkness to light. It can make us believe we can open any and every closed door in front of us, and it can give us strength to face the evil which taunts us head on.
When my son Charlie was little, he would scream at Caroline sometimes, as she tried to be “the big sister,” “You are not the boss of me!” I would laugh so hard. When I was a child we didn’t use those words to challenge those who thought they could boss us around. We would say things like, “you can’t tell me what to do…” or some such.
But the words, “you are not the boss of me!” were more powerful. They were targeted and intentional. And when we sing, sometimes, we are saying to evil and oppression and injustice, “You are NOT the boss of me! You are NOT the boss of us!” We sing to get the courage we need to say it, and we sing to keep the courage in place. We sing to take our eyes away from our fear and focus them on our faith. We sing to feel the power of God’s spirit going through us, calming us and strengthening us for whatever is ahead of us.
Music is God’s gift to us; us singing the songs is our gift back to God. The songs we sing in the midst of our despair are declarations of faith. They are the acknowledgement that we know we are in a dark place, but that we are looking to God for the light we need. When we sing, we necessarily lift our eyes to the hills – i.e., to God – from “whence cometh our help.” When we sing, we make God nod to the rhythm the music gives. The rhythm represents water and therefore life, in the middle of the desert caused by evil and injustice.
The Psalmist in Psalm 104 says, “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.” Singing says to God that we know God is great. Sometimes, we can’t say “God is good all the time,” because there is too much mess, too much misery and suffering around us, but the music, the songs we sing, belie the fact that we are able to tap into a power given to us by God which neither the world nor its puppets can take away.
The songs we sing help us say, “Through the storm, and the rain, through heartache, yes, and pain, thank God I still, still, still have joy!” The joy which we derive from singing supersedes the powers and principalities which think they are greater than God. The music, the songs say, “Oh no! Understand this: YOU are NOT the boss of me!”
On this day, sing a song. Sing it over and over. Sing it until it massages your soul. Sing it until tears come to your eyes. Sing it until you feel your strength and hope returning. Sing it until you feel your anger being put into perspective. Sing it until you fall to your knees and ask for God’s presence in ways you haven’t done in a while. Sing unto the Lord a new song…and in the process, make the ugliness and scariness of this time take a back seat or perhaps be retreated to a back room of your spiritual house. Sing to the Lord …and be strengthened.
Amen and amen.
Why We Must Sing is from her collection of Tuesday Meditations.