How can we sing the Lord's song...

This is Part Two of a four part series exploring the role of beauty for mission in our church. Last week the question was asked, "But what do we do with art that is ugly, harsh or shocking?" These are my notes/research out of which will come (God willing) a Sunday message.

“Politics, religion, economics and the great institutions of family and community have all become abruptly unsure,” in our generation wrote the late Irish poet, John O’Donohue, shortly before his death. Perhaps that is why God seems to be calling more and more us into the promise and potential of beauty: prophetically, poetically, personally and socially a growing number of God’s people are wondering if there might really be a way to sing the Lord’s song by the waters of Babylon. To reclaim, in other words, the promise of Dostoevsky that “beauty really can save the world.” The poet, James McAuley, spoke of our generation like this:

Christ, you walked on the sea
But cannot walk in a poem,
Not in our century.
There's something deeply wrong
Either with us or with you.

Our bright loud world is strong
And better in some ways
Than the old haunting kingdoms:
I don't reject our days.
But in you I taste bread,
Freshness, the honey of being,
And rising from the dead:

Like yolk in a warm shell -
Simplicities of power,
And water from a well.

We live like diagrams
Moving on a screen.
Somewhere a door slams

Shut, and emptiness spreads.
Our loves are processes
Upon foam-rubber beds.

Our speech is chemical waste;
The words have a plastic feel,
An antibiotic taste.

And yet we dream of song
Like parables of joy.
There's something deeply wrong.

Like shades we must drink blood
To find the living voice
That flesh once understood.

Something is wrong yet we dream of a song – parables of joy – that might help us find the living voice that flesh once understood. “By the waters of Babylon, there we lay down and wept… on the willows there we hung up our harps when our captors and tormentors asked us to sing the songs of Zion.” (Psalm 137)

It is tough business being creative in troubled times – it is jarring and counter-cultural to seek out beauty when pain, fear and crudeness are the norm. Think of the prophet, Ezekiel: “The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out by the spirit to set me down into the middle of a valley – and it was filled with bones – dry bones. And the Lord God said to me, ‘Mortal one, can these bones live?” and I answered, “Only thou knowest, Lord, only thou knowest!” (Ezekiel 37) O how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

And yet… sing we do – and paint and dance and write hymns and poems – make movies and sculpt images – find color to combat the drabness and cultivate flowers in the face of death and so much more. Barbara Sonek’s poem, “Holocaust,” comes to mind:

We played, we laughed, we were loved.We were ripped from the arms of our parents and thrown into the fire.We were nothing more than children.We had a future. We were going to be lawyers, rabbis, wives, teachers, mothers. We had dreams, then we had no hope. We were taken away in the dead of night like cattle in cars, no air to breathe smothering, crying, starving, dying. Separated from the world to be no more. From the ashes, hear our plea. This atrocity to mankind cannot happen again. Remember us, for we were the children whose dreams and lives were stolen away.

I think also of Springsteen’s songs about September 11th or even Johnny Cash singing those harsh words of despair born of the industrial-dance groove artist, Nine Inch Nails:

These are the words and sounds of what biblical scholars call the songs of lament – the minority report of scripture – the voice of those who have been wounded, defeated, forgotten and passed over. They are the cries of the broken and lame, the blind, poor and maimed. Old Testament professor, Walter Breuggemann, says that these are the voices that Empire always tries to drown out. “The imperial consciousness lives by its capacity to quiet these groans and to go on with business as usual as though nobody was hurting and there was no agony in the world.” (The Prophetic Imagination, p. 91) Rock and roll performer, Bono, is more direct:

King David in the Bible was said to have composed his first psalm as a blues and that's what a lot of the psalms feel like to me: the blues. Man shouting at God: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?" (Psalm 22) I hear echoes of this holy row when un-holy bluesman Robert Johnson howls, "There's a hellhound on my trail" or Van Morrison sings, "Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child." Abandonment and displacement are the stuff of the blues and the psalms are full of them – even honesty to the point of anger: "How long, Lord, wilt thou hide thyself forever?" (Psalm 89) or "Answer me when I call" (Psalm 5).

And here’s where it gets really interesting because scripture is clear that when God’s people both listen to the cries of the wounded and give voice to their oppression – that is, when we know how to sing the blues – then injustice begins to collapse. Breuggemann writes: “If the groans become audible, if they can be heard in the streets and markets and courts, then the consciousness of domination is already jeopardized.” The blues, you see, the groans of the wounded and songs of lament in the Bible are to music and scripture what the jarring, shocking and even ugly is to visual and performance art. So, the challenge for us is not only learning how to listen, hear and watch, but to take these cries to heart as part of our mission in the world.

What has Jesus asked this morning but, “What does the Lord require?” And do your remember how he responds: “Listen – hear – shema yisrael – understand that the Lord our God is one – one with you, one with me, one with creation, one with the wounded, one with the Palestinians as well as the Jews, one with the Muslims as well as the Christians – so make sure that you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and your strength by… loving your neighbor as yourself!”

Do this – use the totality of your being to love God and neighbor – and you will be very close to the kingdom. Peterson puts it: Love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy… because that's better than all the offerings and sacrifices put together! Do this… and you're almost there, right on the border of God's kingdom."

Learning to hear – and maybe even sing – the blues is what we’re being asked to do. And I understand how hard this is to do particularly because there are two challenges that often get in our way of hearing and singing the Lord’s song by the waters of Babylon let alone the valley of dry bones. The first is generational and posses a huge problem for people like you and me. You see, in most congregations like ours there are at least four or five generations present every Sunday morning.

There are those Tom Brokaw calls the Greatest Generation – women and men 70+ years of age – there are the boomers – people like me between 40 and 65 – Gen Xers in their 30s and early 40s and the millennials in their 20s – to say nothing of our children and youth. And while there is much to celebrate in this experience of age integration rather than segregation, each of these generations have learned to look at and hear the blues in very different ways.

Most of the Greatest Generation – and those before them – never heard the blues; in fact, they were taught to consider the blues inferior music. Art historians, you see, make it clear that until the 1950s beauty was generally defined by the high art of 19th century Romanticism. Think of the harmony and radiance in Handel’s Messiah or the grandeur and passion of Beethoven. Think of Delacroix, Turner or even the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the realm of painting.

The essence was balance, proportion, structure, nobility and a profound nobility pointing towards the highest and best. And without turning this into an art history lecture the problem came to be not the works of art of the era, but the slavish insistence by the captains of culture that only this type of art was valuable. And you know what happens when you tell free people – adults or children – not to touch that cookie (or cross that line or stay out past curfew), don’t you?

They do it – sometimes with a vengeance – and they’ve been doing it with vigor for the past 50 years. So much so that today – right in this place – are some who have no idea what to do with rock and roll and some who have no idea what to do with the organ. And as art in the 20th and now 21st century becomes more and more abstract, discordant and rule breaking… there is often confusion and hard feelings when it comes to defining the ugly and true beauty.

That’s the first challenge – learning to own and appreciate the very different standards by which beauty is experienced given cultural and generational differences. The second is theological and is just as complex as the first. Most western – and especially American – God talk falls into a category I call the via positiva: it is utilitarian, positive, hope-filled, confident and often playful. It is a very lovely way of exploring the goodness of God and is essential for balance.

The problem arises, however, when our lives and relationship with God are not positive, productive, hope filled and all the rest. Where do we find the Lord – and how do we sing the Lord’s song – when we got the blues? Unemployment? Disease? Enter the via negativa which is more about finding God in the darkness and silence – in the absence and the longing – even the suffering and the blues. This is where the songs of lament and hearing the cries and groans of the oppressed comes in – it is an antidote to being naive – or overly utilitarian – or even imbalanced.

We might say that the via positiva is found in our favorite hymns – How Great Thou Art, In the Garden, God of Grace and God of Glory and all our Christmas carols – while the via negativa comes up during Lent – When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Go to Dark Gethsemane, Where You There When They Crucified My Lord. The Sufi mystic, Rumi, explains the via negativa best in his poem “Love Dogs” which says:

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
"So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?"

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
"Why did you stop praising?"
"Because I've never heard anything back."
"This longing
you express is the return message."

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

Are you with me? Do you grasp the difference? One of the important theologians in the Western tradition to get the via negativa in art was Paul Tillich. After fighting for Germany in WWI when he returned to civilian life he discovered that the heart and soul of God was not often found in the sterile and soulless churches of his day, but rather in the challenging, harsh and mostly wounded artistic works of abstract expressionists and others on the fringe that were coming to the surface in post war Europe. He saw them giving voice to the marginalized – embodying the feeling and fears that the poor were crying in the street – giving shape to the agony of the forgotten.

Tillich heard God’s songs of lament and blues and it prompted him to reshape our working definition of beauty: “If beauty means a creation whose harmonious forms produce immediate pleasure, only a few and very questionable artistic styles are concerned with beauty. If, however, beautiful means the power of mediating a special realm of meaning by transforming reality, then much in art is bound to be beautiful.” (NOTE: for more information on art history - and abstract expressionism - see:

The first challenge for us generational – the second is theological – and both keep us from hearing the voice of the Lord in the cries of the wounded, forgotten and often ugly. And so we read the songs of lament in the Scriptures – in worship – and we play the music of Bach and Handel as well as Messiaen and Johnny Cash and Springsteen and U2 – in worship – so that we can break down what divides us and overcome what seeks to keep us wounded, alone and afraid.

Hear, O Israel, listen and pay attention that the Lord your God is One and so are you – one with another and one with the Lord – and the way these words become flesh within and among us is by loving your neighbor as yourself. The blues – the ugly – the harsh and challenging are the voice of the Lord walking the via negativa and can teach us to sing the Lord’s song even in the presence of our tormentors… if we have ears to hear.

Picasso heard the blues – and “Guernica” came to birth in the face of Spanish fascism. Messiaen heard the blues – and composed his “Quartet for the End of Time” to weep with those in the death camps. Rembrandt heard the blues – and gave honor to the face of Jews by painting all his biblical themes based upon those in the ghetto of his day.

Marvin Gaye heard the blues – and gave us a lament about war in peace set to a Motown groove. Miles Davis – John Coltrane – Johnny Cash – Lucinda Williams and U2 heard the blues – as did Copeland, Barber, Brecht and Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Leonard Cohen.

What often strikes us as ugly in our security is an invitation to go beyond the safety zone and hear – really hear – the weeping taking place by the waters of Babylon. And all too often loving our neighbor as ourselves has to do with tears. So let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts... sing to you, O Lord, even by the waters of Babylon.


Rev Nancy Fitz said…
Thank you. You are expressing something that has been stirring in me. Part is a reaction to people I relate to. So i'm trying to separate what is reaction and what is being stirring in me. I'm tired of sanitized environments and believe God is in every part of life. I"m tired of the rational explanations that reduce God to that which we can understand. Thanks for putting into words a relevant reflection.
Cosmo said…
Don't you love those words in Ezekiel: "Can these bones live again?" The prohet was wise enough to answer, "Sovereign Lord, you alone know."

(I think I can hear God saying, 'You bet I Know'!)

And then the calling to the four winds for the very ruach of God to enter them. Good stuff.

Spirit of the Living God fall afresh on me!

Yes, sing your songs. Breathe in the ever present Spirit of God (in Babylon, Jerusalem, Pittsfield, Dublin...) and sing your songs!

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