“How Can I Keep from Singing?”
Sacred Harp Sunday
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 22, 2017
University Baptist Church
Thank you for being here and singing these songs with me. It does my heart good. It’s good healing medicine. I need to sing in times like these, don’t you?
In times of despair, it’s common for people to go off by themselves and lick their wounds. It’s tempting to turn your face to the wall. But there are plentiful pockets of resistance.
Yesterday, it’s estimated that over 3.5 million people gathered in 600 cities worldwide to protest a demagogic presidency and to celebrate women. That’s a lot of pink hats. And a lot of voices lifted to the sky. I think it’s a great response, especially when people have tried to silence or belittle you. It’s the response of power. It says, we’re watching. It says we will not stand idly by. It says, there’s a force with which to be reckoned. Becca wanted to not go to school on the day after the election. I told her that we needed strong smart women now more than ever. So she was in the crowd estimated at 100,000 at the Capitol yesterday.
Imagine the Hebrew people over 2600 years ago. They watched their temple being torn down and burned. They saw their king removed from power. They lost their property. They lost their homeland. And they were made to wander in the desert: political prisoners, refugees. For a people who linked salvation with the land, they were utterly lost. And to make it worse, their captors taunted them. Told them that they were losers, that their cities and their government was a disaster, that their beliefs were a sham. They told them that they were in a post-religious time. The desert was going to be drained. You are nothing. You are pathetic. You are losers. Everyone agrees. And you should get over it. Accept your fate.
The captors called at them, “Sing your pretty songs now. They won’t do you any good. Your God is not listening. Sing to us some of the sacred songs, so we can laugh at you. See your songs make no difference. They are just empty words. Your songs are quaint reflections of a bygone era. Get the ancient equivalent of Alan Lomax and preserve this moment in time for it will soon be no more.”
The drooping branches of the willow sobbed as the muted instruments hung there. The only human sound was weeping. Accompanied by a chorus of leaves brushing through the trees, the metronome of the waves washing ashore. And then someone started. They started in halting tones. They sang the old songs, but added their own meaning to them. They added their grief, their longing, their laments. And they wove them into the old songs of their faith. And they took on new meaning. Or deeper meaning.
Maybe the song they sang was the defiant vv. 7-9 “…Happy shall they be who pay you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Vv. 7-9 are what happens when you have unchecked and unresolved bitterness. Your rage needs an outlet. It will damage you as much as it damages your opponent and will not make you feel any better.
I hope that our better nature prevails. The songs of yesterday were songs of hope amidst the defiance. They were saying we are here and we’re not backing down.
We need our sacred songs that push us in a better direction.
Sacred Harp songs sing a lot about death. We tend not to sing about death too much. But it’s a reality. I love the second verse of Granville. “Must death forever rage and reign or hast thou made mankind in vain.” It’s a question and a challenge to God. It’s also a lethargic act of defiance. It says, we can make it through if we do so together.
I think singing is an act of resistance and affirmation. Where else do you have the opportunity to do that if you are not part of a church? Singing along to the radio is just not the same thing. The church is a community of resistance and affirmation.
Singing has always been my refuge. We sang at my brother’s house, all the gathered family just one week after my nephew died. We were there at the hour that he took his life the following week. Instead of just bathing the hour in sorrow and despair, we baptized it with music. The songs of our longings, the laments of our souls, the joyous songs of Christmas, which forever take on an augmented meaning. We need music to heal. Good music. Soulful music. Music with a purpose. Music that points us where we want to go, even if we can’t imagine going there just yet.
About 10 years ago, I went on a Sabbatical and spent some time in Navajo country. My sister was living there at the time and I had another friend who worked with the Indian Health Service in Gallup. She introduced me to a Navajo medicine man. We spoke for a couple of hours. I gave him some Minnesota wild rice. He told me about the Navajo creation story and his work to bring balance and healing to his people. At the end of our conversation, he asked if I had any questions. I said that I noticed at the various flea markets that there were Ziploc baggies full of herbs. On the outside of the bags they said, stomach or spleen or hair or depression. I asked how this medicine worked. He gave me a wry smile and said, “It’s all B.S.” When I looked confused, he elaborated. “First of all, if it was real medicine, you would never buy it at a flea market. Instead, your grandmother would give it to you.” He also said, “someone buying the medicine at a flea market won’t work because the user doesn’t know the songs.” The medicine clan leaders provided the songs. The combination of the herbs from the mother earth, the intention of how they were attained, and the right music and ritual to accompany its application is what brings healing.
We know the songs. We recite them and dare to sing them.
The Sacred harp music is hopeful and defiant. It seeks to hold up ancient truths. God has not left us comfortless or alone. We will not squeak or whisper this message, we will proclaim it with a loud voice. It’s hope that we bear.
Rage against the madness with song.
Sing on, my friends.
Sing for hope
Sing for mercy
Sing because we can
Sing because we must
Sing the sacred songs even when the land seems strange
Sing to remind us of our deepest longings
Sing to remember that we are strong together
Sing because it’s not just a voice in the darkness
Sing because we are the people of God. And together we are strong and powerful.
Remember, the captives eventually returned to their land and rebuilt the old ruins. They did so because they knew the songs. They had preserved them in their bones. And when they sang them they mystically sang with all those who had gone before.
In their despair they said “How can we sing the sacred songs in a strange land?” But eventually they did. They rose out of their despair and all but said, “How can I keep from singing?” May we do the same.