The prisoners of Sing Sing, one of the most repressive, oppressive and dehumanizing penal institutions ever erected on the grounds of New York, were prohibited from singing during their incareration. The authorities felt that it would contribute to prison disturbance and ultimately, chaotic discord.
Unlike the prisoners of Sing Sing, the prisoners of Babylon were forced to sing. Judah had been invaded by the superpower Babylon, broken under the siege, and their beloved and holy Jerusalem had been crushed. The walls had been broken down, the temple demolished and the surviving Judean people taken helplessly to the homeland of the arrogantly victorious Babylonian army. In Babylon, their captors thought it amusing to force the defeated foreigners to sing hymns and religious songs in their strange language. But the prisoners were overcome by their loss and they asked, "How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?" (Psalms 137:4 NIV).
I believe those of us living in the 21st century can relate to the cries of the Judean prisoners. We often hear the term "globalization" which basically refers to the fact that the world has grown smaller and more interconnected. But has it? Many of us are finding ourselves in a strange land without traveling anywhere.
America has, in many, many ways, become alien to us, has it not? Technological, cultural, political, religious, agricultural, international changes make us all outdated and foreign as the decades speed by. Familiar landmarks, familiar customs, familiar traditions are things to be found only in the recesses of our memories. With so much of what was once familiar being replaced by the unfamiliar, we find ourselves living in a strange and alien land. The demands on us to "keep up," "buy this," "eat right," "raise your children this way," "take responsibility," "defy aging," "learn a second language," and so forth, has resulted in many of us finding ourselves residing on unfamiliar ground. How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If your experience is at all like mine, you wake in the morning to news of death in the Middle East, news of killings in our own back yard, and we go to bed with the same news, different characters. It wasn't so long ago that the New York Times reported a study that showed that people who followed the news carefully gets less sleep, particularly those who watch the late night news before going to bed. Our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles in Iraq are far from home risking their lives with no clear end in sight. We wait and watch the news not knowing exactly what to hope for except for the safe return of our loved ones. Many Iraqis must be feeling the same way. "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion" (Psalms 137:1 NIV). All over the Middle East and elsewhere there are people far from home in alien territory wondering, How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
The Christian community is always, in some sense, away from home; a band of exiles whose hopes are fixed on another home, the New Jerusalem. How can we, in the meantime, sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?
We sing because we must. It is not optional, it is obligatory. We must sing it as those prisoners sang it in the Japanese camps in the Pacific. We sing it as Black slaves did in the cotton fields of the south. We sing it as the Jews did in the concentration camps of Auschwitz. We sing it as the soldiers did in Viet Nam. We sing the Lord's song even though the world is not as it should be. We sing it to sustain us; we sing in defiance; and we sing it as a bold sign to the world of our hope in Jesus Christ.
As earth aliens, how can we raise our voices in song when the planet is stressed out and its people spiritually dislocated? We sing the Lord's song as a gesture of hope, as an act of trust and confidence that God is not finished with the human race yet. We sing the Lord's song not only to keep our spirits up, not only in defiance to show our dissatisfaction with the way things are, but we sing it in faith. We sing the Lord's song in the sure and certain hope that the God who has been at work all through human history is still at work and in full control. We will keep on singing, even with tears in our eyes, even with sorrow in our hearts, and even with heavy burdens on our backs.
We will sing the Lord's song because it is a song that defies present realities, refuses to accept that the world has the last word. We sing songs of peace and love, kindness and compassion, justice and equality. We sing, not of what is, but of what will be. We will keep on singing however far from home we may be.
As my preacher mentor and spiritual father used to tell the congregation, "Sing children, sing."
Saundra L. Washington, an ordained clergywoman and social worker, has practiced concurrently in the fields of social work and ministry for almost three decades. She is the Founder of AMEN Ministries, http://www.clergyservices4u.org and the author of two coffee table books: Room Beneath the Snow, Poems that Preach and Negative Disturbances, Homilies that Teach.