I don’t spend much time on Twitter; it can be a mean and unforgiving place, and I just don’t have the stomach for that. But it is also a window into what people are thinking and a stage for performing various ideas, opinions, and positions, and sometimes I go there just to learn from really smart and funny people.
One day last week I discovered that an Episcopal priest and author named Tim Schenck had asked an interesting question:
What’s the one thing you miss most about worshiping at church? (besides the people)
More than a hundred people responded and, amazingly, most of them took the question seriously. Their snark-free responses suggested that they really do miss worshiping at church, and not only for the people. Some spoke of the intangible energy of the gathered community; others said they longed to see their children run and dance and engage with other people. Hugs and silence and Communion also got multiple mentions, and a few people said they missed the space itself.
“I’ll never joke about the pews being uncomfortable again,” said one young-looking person.
But the most common response to the “what do you miss most” question had to do with music and singing, especially singing hymns together. One person was even more specific, saying she misses “the collective breath before singing.” Her comment about the breath made me think of the Holy Spirit, and how evident the Spirit’s presence is when we sing together.
I miss that, too, along with the lovely sound our singing makes, along with how often Dick leads the choir in an anthem that fills my heart with God’s love and joy, along with Dick’s organ and piano, Jay Killough’s occasional percussion, and the still more occasional flute, guitar, brass, or string accompaniment.
Which brings us to Choir Recognition Sunday in a pandemic—observed without the presence of a choir or any congregational singing. Which brings us to the sad reality that even when we do resume worshiping together in the sanctuary, it will likely be a very long time before we can actually sing together again. Which brings us to loss and grief, nostalgia and longing, exile and oppression.
Which bring us back to the 137th Psalm and the lament of the people of Israel who have been taken captive by their enemy and now live in exile. Listen to this paraphrase from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:
Alongside Babylon’s rivers we sat on the banks; we cried and cried, remembering the good old days in Zion. Alongside the quaking aspens we stacked our unplayed harps; That’s where our captors demanded songs, sarcastic and mocking: “Sing us a happy Zion song!” Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song in this wasteland?
And how can we sing God’s song in this pandemic? How can we worship when we can’t sing together? Can we find new ways to sing? Can we learn a new song, one that will help us remember who and whose we are? Can we call it singing if we can’t do it together?
And what should we be singing in these uncertain and unsettling times? Do we know how to sing God’s song of love in this divided and sometimes deadly land?
More to the point: Can we hear the songs of our marginalized, exiled siblings? Do we hear the pain of our African American siblings, whose ancestors were captured and exiled, held as property and treated as less than human?
Will we stop asking them to sing our songs our way, and, instead, support them in the fullness of their heritage and the beauty of their culture? Will we recognize the extent to which we white folks are the Babylonian captors of this psalm? Can we hear the pain of our black neighbors?
Now, I realize that the psalm’s question about singing in a foreign land is largely rhetorical; I understand that this psalm may have nothing at all to do with singing.
But isn’t singing a fitting metaphor for living? Shouldn’t singing be as natural—and as sacred—as breathing? Who doesn’t want to be able to sing their own song and be their true self—with unbridled joy, unlimited freedom, and mutual respect?
The question about singing God’s song in a foreign land is actually a statement of painful lament: about how difficult it is to sing when our hearts have been broken, how hard it is to hope when our spirits have been crushed, and how exhausting it is for exiles and those treated as exiles to hold onto the holiness of who they are when they have to fight to make their lives matter.
I would like to think that the Hebrew exiles sang all the way home to Jerusalem, occasionally shouting for joy as the trees of the fields clapped their hands. I would like to think that once they were back home they had more compassion for the folks on the margins. And I would like to think—I have to hope—that our brief pandemic “exile” from worshiping and singing together, our separation from loved ones and from so much about our lives that we love, will open our hearts more fully to our oppressed neighbors.
I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons why George Floyd’s murder has hurt us so deeply and driven so many of us out into the streets to demand a different world is that, because of the pandemic, we actually have had the time and space to pay attention to our nation’s shameful history and ongoing practices of racial injustice. I can’t help but wonder if the minor inconveniences of quarantine have made us more sensitive to the pain of others. I can’t help but wonder if, having been forced by the pandemic to reimagine our lives and our worship, if we are not also more capable of reimagining the world.
And if we think of the world as the realm of God, if we remember that God is with us wherever we are, there is no such thing as a strange or foreign land. There is no place that is not home. It is all holy ground, and we ourselves are God’s sanctuary.
And there is no place we cannot sing the Lord’s endless love song.
As for how we can sing in trying circumstances—how can we not? As for how we will worship without singing together—who’s to say what music the Spirit will make whenever our hearts are joined? And surely nothing can keep our hearts from singing, even when our voices are silent.
Beloveds, since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing?