Why Are They Singing? A short meditation
The following short meditation by Stan Mast is a bonus resource promised in RW57. The full service appears in the magazine.
Text: Psalm 137
It is a question God's people have often asked. How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? It is a good question. How can we sing to the Lord when the center of our worship, the center of our lives has been torn down? How can we sing when we are far away from the place we used to meet God in magnificent ritual?
The Jews, you recall, had been hauled away from their beloved Jerusalem, dragged off to Babylon, their ears ringing with the shouts of their ancient enemies, "Tear it down! Tear it down to its foundations!" The Edomites had done just that. Jerusalem lay in ruins and the Jews languished in exile, weeping over the loss of their Zion, their harps hanging unused on the trees of this foreign land. So they ask, How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
Ps. 137 reveals how the Jews survived in that God-forsaken place. Fiercely they clung to the memory of that other, God- blessed place. "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill; may my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you...." And fiercely they wished harm on their tormentors, asking God to repay their enemies for what they had done to the holy place, and hoping that the children of their captors will be horribly murdered. That's how they survived, with fierce memories and fierce dreams.
But they lost their song and they lost their heart. That's what happens when your singing is tied to a place and a ritual, rather than to a relationship with a person, to a country rather than to a covenant. With a fierce and bitter faith you may survive, but you will lose your song, and your heart. How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?
Contrast this Psalm with a story told by L. Gregory Jones, dean of Duke Divinity School. On a trip to the eastern European country of Estonia, he met with church leaders who recalled the bad old days under Soviet tyranny. They talked about the way the secret police, the KGB, regularly attended their worship services, watching suspiciously to see what was going on. The church leaders would disguise their instruction of the children, so that the KGB wouldn't use catechesis as an excuse to arrest them. But they couldn't disguise the children's love of singing. The leaders were afraid the KGB would react negatively. But one officer came over to the head of this particular church with a puzzled look on his face, and asked, "Why are the children singing?"
Jones gives a complicated answer. I have a simple one-- because of the covenant. Their songs were a response of the heart to God's love for them and their love for God. They sang because their songs were not attached to a place, but to a person, not to a free country, but to a faithful God, not to a holy city, but to a holy covenant. The songs of the Estonian children were sung in a foreign land under a tyrannical government in response to the faithfulness of their loving God. They were canticles of the covenant. And so it ever has been.
In the days of the Reformation, the common people were not singing, not in church anyway. That sacred duty had been preempted by the official clergy, the priests, individually and in their cathedral choirs. But with the re-discovery of the priesthood of all believers, that wonderful Biblical teaching that all believers could have a direct relationship with God unmediated by an ordained priest, that surprising good news that even the poorest and youngest and least educated, and, yes, even the most sinful could have a personal walk with a covenantal God, the people began to sing again.
Of course! When you know that God is with you no matter where you are, that he loves you no matter what the shape of your life, then you can sing the songs of the Lord even in a foreign land. The songs of God's people rise not from a certain ritual in a holy geography, but from a covenant relationship with a Holy God. On this Reformation Day night, we join with the people of God throughout covenant history in this festival of hymns, these canticles of the covenant.