Music and Lyrics: Thoughts on Psalm 137

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The past is silent.

Someone said that on the radio this morning and it’s true. Sure, archeoacoustics is a developing field, and we know how ancient hymns and music were used in ritual, but we can’t hear them for real. We don’t know if Jesus was a baritone, or if Peter’s temper was him overcompensating for a squeaky voice. We don’t know what Paul sounded like when he preached, so I always hear him as Alan Rickman. I’m not sure why exactly, it’s just a weird symptom of the silence of history.

This is a big deal when it comes to the Psalms. There they sit in black and white, enshrined in the scriptures, immortalised as holy writ, preserved in biblical amber. And maybe it’s because I grew up in the church, or because I’ve always responded to lyrics before music, but I’ve got a tendency to read the Psalms as scriptures that became songs, not songs that became scriptures. It’s an important distinction.

Case in point: Psalm 137. It’s ‘By The Rivers Of Babylon’, it’s a party song, it’s Boney M. Everyone knows it.

And then we get to the last stanza: Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Wow, thanks for the spiritual whiplash there, you’ve gone from Boney M to Slayer in just a couple of verses.

Of course, I read that as scripture, as part of the Holy Bible, and I react against it because it’s abhorrent and grotesque. Smashing babies against rocks? No, sorry, it’s vile and horrific and I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the Bible.

But why shouldn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m never going to like the sentiments expressed in that small stanza. If I ever find myself cheerfully singing it in the shower, I promise to check myself into a special clinic somewhere. But maybe I need to teach myself not to see the Psalms as words written in black and white, but hear them as songs of celebration and lamentation and protest, and as messy expressions of emotion.

Listen to songs that express uncomfortable, raw experiences. Listen to ‘Strange Fruit‘ by Billie Holiday or ‘Hurt‘ by Johnny Cash. They achieve in a few minutes what whole history books and autobiographies might fail to do, but they’re not pretty, nor should they be. They’re confronting some ugly truths and therein lies their value.

How we read the Bible is important. Read “Happy are they who dash your infants against the rocks” in the same way that you read, say, John 3:16 and you’re in trouble. The latter is an expression of God’s love and sacrifice for humanity, a teaching of Jesus. The former…

The former is a metal song composed by a songwriter who’s seen his country invaded, its capital destroyed and its survivors dragged away into captivity. And now those same invaders want him to sing one of the old songs, a song of joy and triumph, in a colossal act of selling out. The psalmist would rather cut out his tongue than prostitute his heart like that, would rather die than become a puppet mindlessly parroting his songs. Cut off from the means of expression that’s driven him for years, he pours his heart into a song of rage and sorrow. It’s raw and furious and dark.

And he takes it to God. He turns all his heart’s madness and vengeance into a song and sings it towards his Lord. That’s why we need to hear the music, because the psalmist isn’t writing theology, he’s praying a protest song. The melody creates a ‘safe’ space in which the singer and God can confront the ugly brutality of life and of the singer’s own feelings.

I heard a preacher once say that every worship band needs a break-up song. There’s wisdom in that; the songs we sing should be honest and true, and if that means acknowledging that we’re angry and bitter and broken then so be it. No-one ever preaches on Lamentations, but maybe they should; alongside that maybe we need to sing more sad songs in church, because worship sung in a minor key through gritted teeth is still worship.

Owning the pain and the rage and the despair and giving it to God is a path to being liberated from them, but sometimes it’s hard to know how to give them away. Maybe singing them out is more effective than wrestling with theology and religion; maybe the psalmist achieved a level of unguarded honesty with God in his singing than he ever did in conversing with his priest. Whatever the case, the Psalms give us permission to sing things we could never say, to express things out loud that we’d rather let fester in silence.

And through that, God hears our heart.

Telling The Wrong Stories About Giants (Numbers 13/14)

LANFRANCO Giovanni_Moses and the Messengers from Canaan (Mojžíš a poslové z Canaan), Řím, 1621 - 1624_(109kB)This post was inspired by a piece by Bryony Taylor over at the Big Bible Project. Give it a look!

Twelve spies have just returned from scoping out the Promised Land. A homeless nation stands at the border and awaits their report. It’s a report on which the future of their people hangs; caught between a rock and a hard place, the Hebrews who fled Egypt now want to know if they’re ever going to be able to settle down somewhere new, if they’re ever going to stop running. But the news isn’t what they wanted to hear.

“We can’t enter the land,” say ten of the spies, “There are giants there.” And you can almost understand their trepidation, their fear at facing the descendants of a primal, near-supernatural enemy. Except…

Except they’ve also lived through encounters with the powerful. They’re the ones who walked away from slavery while Egypt was left picking p the pieces. And yet listen to these former slaves now: “Let’s go back!” they cry, forgetting that their great escape lead to plagues and darkness and death. The Hebrews had somehow convinced themselves they still had a home back in Egypt, expecting death if they move forward and a warm welcome back into captivity if they return. Talk about getting things backwards. Joshua and Caleb argue against this, but to no avail; they’re trying to get their comrades to remember that God’s been with them all this time, but the majority of people are telling the wrong stories.

They’re telling stories of the past, stories about the power of their enemies, stories of giants and pharoahs and a golden age that never was. And God is left out of those stories, his power and love and competence called into question.

And as a result, Israel spends another forty years in the desert. The generation that grew up on stories about the might and Egypt and giants pass away; a generation grows up whose formative memory is God saving his people. The only adult survivors of that first generation were Joshua and Caleb, two men who started telling that new story in the first place.

They needed to become a nation of survivors, not of victims.

But stories of giants and kings and monsters under the bed still get told. Not in horror movies or Stephen King books, but in the way we talk about ourselves and our history. We’re too sinful, too stupid, too young, too past it. We’re too lonely, too ugly, too much of a failure. We gather together and we tell stories of the past that may as well be eulogies – our churches were better years ago, when the Sunday School was packed, when we were young and dynamic and our presence was respected. Or we sit at home and look back on our private stories, on the ruins of our lives, on relationships gone wrong, on our habits and addictions and failings.

Yes, we still speak of giants. They walk alongside us, taunting us from all sides.

And yet God looks ahead of us, shows us a new world. And we don’t have to fight for it, not really, because this is his battle. He walks before us, he stands next to us, he watches our back.

But that’s so hard to believe, because giants loom on the horizon while God is sometimes hard to see. And those giants get closer and closer and, if you’re looking me, you stop looking for God and fumble for your own sword instead. You know it’s not enough, that it’ll soon be over-whelmed, but what else is there to do? Sometimes it’s easier to hold on to a sword than it is to God, even when we’re aware of just how limited our own resources are.

And yet God remains, bigger than any giant, teller of the greatest tales. We just have to put one foot in front of the other and follow him; follow him into a new future, follow him into a new story.

Look: Peter and John heal a lame man (Acts 3:1-10)

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Over the years I’ve somehow made myself good at not looking. I’ve convinced myself it’s a survival skill for the rare times I visit major cities; when I was in Toronto back in 1999, I couldn’t handle seeing the homelessness problem, so within a couple of days I’d trained myself to walk faster, to look straight ahead, to not try and give pathetic scraps of change to the homeless woman standing outside a shopping centre, to the man lying on a sidewalk air vent.

These skills also served me well in San Francisco, when I found myself stepping over someone sleeping on the pavement. There’s a part of me that still hates myself for that, but if I’m being honest, it’s not a very big part, and I can still studiously avoid making eye contact with people begging in places like Derby or Dudley or Birmingham, places I live and work.

So Peter and John are going into the Temple in Jerusalem when a beggar asks them for money. They don’t have any, but instead heal his lameness; so far, so typical for the New Testament. But here’s the line that I always saw as a strange detail to mention:

“Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!”

It’s taken years for me to twig that this seems to be about eye contact.

I mean, the guy’s begging at the Temple gates, presumably because this was a high traffic area that gave him enough to live on. Scores of people must have walked past him every day, some of them throwing him a few coins here and there, and yet how many people actually looked at him? After all, it’s scary how easy it is not to make eye contact when you’re dropping a quid at someone’s feet.

Peter and John do make eye contact. There’s something going on here, something about compassion and interest and acknowledging the beggar’s humanity. In some ways the healing starts here.

Let’s not kid ourselves though, it’s about how these guys looked at each other. Because the alternative to not looking is sometimes to stare in horror and disgust, and in some ways that’s worse. Imagine, say, the looks given by passers-by when your autistic kid has a meltdown in the supermarket, or when your granddad does something inappropriate because his mind is slowly being clouded by Alzheimer’s, or when the friend who comes to church with you at Christmas has one too many tattoos and a flexible attitude to swearing, or when you read the latest tabloid campaign to characterise the disabled as ‘lazy’.

Look at those looks. They’re not pretty.

How we look at people can be a mark of how deep our faith has got into our bones, and frankly this terrifies me. Because I’m aware of how often I look in anger and judgement; I know how often I refuse to look at all.

Peter and John had the right idea, because, after all, they’d been hanging out with Jesus for years. They didn’t have any money, but they gave what they could. In the end, this turned out to be pretty spectacular, but they started with something simple – their interest, their attention, their compassion.

They looked, they saw what they needed to do and they did it.

Sometimes that’s all God asks us to do.

So why do we find it so hard?