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Singing the Lord’s Song

Today’s post is by Tilden Edwards

“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion….There our captors asked us to sing one of the songs of Zion. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137)

Like those Israelites forced into exile in Babylon, I sometimes am overwhelmed by the oppressions and conflicts that capture the world around me and that rise up inside me as well. I am struck mute with sadness and near despair. How can I sing the Lord’s love song when so much of the world seems to be screaming in pain, anger, fear and hate? Only singing the blues and laments makes sense when I feel this way.

And yet we see St. Paul and Silas giving us a different example (Acts 16:25). After being unjustly sentenced, tortured and thrown into prison, they didn’t give in to despair or pain. Instead, we find them up at midnight praying and singing hymns to God, bringing comfort to the other prisoners, and in the end bringing the jailer himself to God. Paul trusted that nothing could separate them from the most substantial reality there is: the creative, reconciling love of God that Jesus’ proclaimed. Paul asserted that we all live and move and have our being in that deepest reality. It finally trumps every evil, ignorant, and narrowly self-serving force in the world, including such forces within us. That inclusive divine love can be hidden, but it can’t be destroyed.

So we find God’s song erupting again and again in scripture, congregations, community groups, and in our own lives, even in the face of endless conflicts. Many religious and social movements in this country and around the world break out into songs of Zion, songs of God’s call to love justice, freedom, peace, and communion. Paul says in Ephesians 5:18: “…be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God at all times and for everything.”

Our singing not only rises from our overriding trust that the bottom line is eternal Love; the singing itself strengthens that trust. It takes us beyond the grip of fear and hopelessness. As a contemplative practice, singing can carry our desire to embrace the Spirit’s empowering presence and visionary leadership. It can lighten the power of our fight/flight temptations, and our too limited thinking and compassion, in the face of serious conflict.

Spiritual songs and repetitive chants draw us into our open spiritual hearts. They turn our hard boundaries into permeable-to-the-Spirit dotted lines. They can transcend our anxieties, linear minds, attachments, and differences. Such singing can penetrate the fragmentation that conflict creates with an underlying sense of unity. Singing can energize our confidence in the Spirit’s liberating and reconciling presence amidst our conflicts. Finally, it can help us bear conflicts with acceptance and compassion in those times when we are shown no way through them to resolution.

Such motivated singing, followed by silent listening from the shared sacred ground of our spiritual hearts, can leave us ready to engage a conflict situation from a deeper, freer place. We’re more ready for a new and maybe risky song to be sung through us. In a social conflict situation, everyone may not be open to such singing and silence, but it at least might be invited when there is any hint of openness.

We can sing not only with others but also alone. Lately I find myself singing some of my prayers rather than saying them; singing draws my whole being into the prayer more fully. Beethoven and maybe Bach also said that when we sing we pray twice. To me the “twice” means bringing mind and heart together into one flowing expression of praise, intercession for all sides in a conflict, and open, available-to-God presence.

A version of this was presented at Shalem’s Society Gathering in October 2010.

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