Sunday, September 4, 2011

Finding Out You Can't Sing

My daughter sits in the top of the buggy, hands reaching out for whatever is in arm's reach, all while singing at the top of her lungs. At almost three, Amelia has trouble distinguishing between what is an outside versus an inside voice. This time is no different.

As I run fingers down book spines, quickly searching the stacks at our favorite thrift store, I listen, trying to make out the tune. I can't. I listen harder only to realize her words are so run together that I can't understand anything...except the word Jesus. Every few loudly sung non-words, I clearly hear Jesus followed by more nonsense, then Jesus again.

My cheeks flush as I bite my tongue. Half the store can hear, but how can I tell her to hush when she's singing a heart's praise? Isn't that what I've taught? To sing like there is an audience of One, soul turned upward to the Father?

All too often, this world makes real singing impossible. Even when we should be singing praises to God in worship, sometimes the pain of life, the suffering, overwhelm our fleshly senses to the point where we feel a song can't pass our lips or when it does, it is as mere emotionless words. Other times, self consciousness about what others might think turns our heart song into a whisper, especially if we have a talent for being off key.

When the Israelites lived captive in Babylon, they also had a problem with singing real songs from the heart. The Psalmist, perhaps even the prophet Jeremiah, writes:

"By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.'

How can we sing the LORD’S song
In a foreign land?" (Ps. 137:1-4).

Why the Israelites brought their harps with them is unclear. Did they bring the instruments for comfort's sake, soothing familiarity in far away land? Did they keep them for preservation's sake when all Jerusalem was being burned, a hope that they would be used once again by Levites in worship when they returned home?

Whatever the reasoning, they seemed to be unable to use the harps for comfort or even worship away from the temple. The mere sight of the instrument caused them to remember and weep. But instead of packing away the harps in storage or hiding them in the cleft of a rock, the people of God "hung" their harps in plain sight when they "remembered." The Hebrew word used here means "to cause to be remembered,"* implying the people were consciously sitting down in their captivity, forcing themselves to remember and grieve, not an instance where they merely fell into a heap when overwhelmed by sudden emotion.

Although with downtrodden spirits in this conscious grief, the people of God had hearts that still could have sung in worship to God. Scripture commands, "in everything give thanks"(1 Thes. 5:18). The Psalmist even advised, "This is the day which the LORD has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it" (Ps. 118:24). Yet, like many of us have likewise felt at moments such as these, the Israelites could only focus on what was lost versus on what God was still providing in His every-present mercy. They could only send up lamentations instead of praise, unable to see God at work in their present circumstances, "In a foreign land."

Despite their seeming inability to choose praising God through song, Israel was still required by her captors to sing. And so they sang, out of compulsion, not out of joy or worship of Yahweh or even out of lamentation. These songs of Zion the captors wanted so badly to hear were hymns of worship, of Israel's history as God's chosen ones, and of God's faithfulness to protect and provide. Surely, the captors wanted to hear the words in order to mock the slaves...and to mock the God of Israel.

Amidst the mocking and grief, the sung words were empty, soul disconnected from words.

Only when the captives were returned to Israel seventy years later did their souls soar enough to feel like singing once again to God:

"When the LORD brought back the captive ones of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter
And our tongue with joyful shouting;
Then they said among the nations,
'The LORD has done great things for them.'
The LORD has done great things for us;
We are glad" (Ps. 126: 1-3).

The King James Version translates "joyful shouting" in verse 2 as "singing," the Hebrew word ranan meaning "to be overcome," "to cry out, shout for joy, give a ringing cry."* It is this type of soul overflowing song of praise that is generally thought to be true worship, when the heart cannot not sing because of joy.

Yet, I would argue that even this is not the fullness of what a song to God will one day be.

Although Israel had returned home to Jerusalem, their question, "How can we sing the LORD’S song In a foreign land?" was and still is a pertinent question.

Peter refers to Christians as "aliens and strangers"--blood-covered, spirit-filled foreigners living in a sin-stained earth (1 Pet. 2:11). Perhaps, then, God's people can never sing the Lord's song in this foreign, impure land.

If this is true, then consider the singing depicted in Revelation: "And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been purchased from the earth" (Rev. 14:3).

This "new song" sung around the throne may not be filled with uncommon words or a tune man has never heard before. Instead, perhaps it is a newness in that it can only be sung in its fullness by a redeemed soul finally home.

True heart-song singing need not be out of joy. It need not be loud or in time with a harp. In one sense, a raw song of worship, unadorned by instruments yet quietly lifted from a soul that is torn, battered, and in captivity--this is an equal, perhaps greater, song of worship.

Either song, though, is inferior to the one Christians will sing one day before the throne. On that day when we are no longer foreigners but are home once and forevermore, perhaps we children of God will discover none of us has ever been able to sing before. We only thought we knew how.



No comments:

Post a Comment