Lesson Two: Lamenting Together
Focus Scripture: Psalm 137
Learning to Sing the Lord’s Song—Together
The human brain builds new knowledge on the scaffold of what it already knows. It is a process that makes sense and means we can take the task of learning in reasonably small steps. Small steps until we run across something that doesn’t make sense based on what we know. When the brain arrives at this point, where something is out of sync with its current knowledge, it is at least a challenge and at most a crisis.
In Psalm 137, the text for lesson two, the captives are in crisis mode. The psalm opens with a where, what, and why description of God’s people. Where: they find themselves by the rivers—or waters or irrigation canals (see p. 22)—of Babylon. What: so they can weep. Why: because they remember their home, Zion. They face a crisis because they don’t know how to sing God’s song when they aren’t in God’s land. Their brains (and probably hearts) just can’t make sense of it.
That instinctive “we can’t” reflects our brain’s wiring. From our earliest days, we take in information through all our senses and form ideas about how the world works. We smell something interesting—tangy and warm—that turns out to be bread dough rising. Later we eat a slice of warm bread. We realize there must be a connection between that smell and that slice.
We learn other things, too. Boxes labeled “Christmas” pulled out from where they are stored mean it will soon be time for carols, trees, and presents. People carrying umbrellas even when the sun shines mean that the sun may not shine all day. Our school clothes laid out in the evening mean that tomorrow is probably a school day.
But, what if the school clothes are being collected to donate to a local clothing drive? What if the Christmas decorations are being taken out to sell in a yard sale? Imagine the confusion the child excited for Christmas feels when they sees cars full of people arrive to paw through the Christmas decorations, select a few, and drive away with them. Every other time the boxes have appeared before it has meant Christmas. Now what do the boxes mean?
It is impossible to sing God’s song when we aren’t in God’s land; the people cry out to God.
Music is the stated stumbling block for the captives in Babylon. The musicians were ready to hang up their instruments on the trees by the water, which meant they wouldn’t be able to accompany any singing. The people lamented—all of them together, in unison. How can we sing the Lord’s song?
The captives in Babylon are not the only ones who find themselves in a new situation where old music doesn’t fit. As Black Americans from the Deep South migrated north, they took their music with them. That music included the Delta blues, often sung by a single musician and self-accompanied by a single instrument. The singer strummed the guitar (usually) while singing the lyrics that spoke to the struggles and troubles of a rural-based life. In places like Kansas City, Chicago, and St. Louis, the music grown from rural roots was fine for remembering those experiences, but it didn’t reflect contemporary life or city living.
In the cities there was interest in the traditional style, but there was also an understanding that a new situation should mean new music. The blues are nothing if not autobiographical and of-the-moment, so the music was adapted (modified) to reflect the time and place. The blues scene in Kansas City highlighted groups of musicians rather than just a single singer/player. A new style of blues also emerged, a style of music with a tempo and beat that echoed the faster pace of city life. These urban blues were a response to the situation in which people found themselves. The change from lone singers to blues orchestras, like Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, changed the blues from individual to communal expressions of life.
There’s something to be said for singing—or lamenting or playing the blues—together. Folk wisdom asserts that even if we are joined by only one other person, joy will double joy but sorrow will be halved. The captives weren’t alone. They had each other. And whether they felt it or not, they had God. And so do we.
P. Lynn Miller
Author and Illustrator of the 2020–2021 PW/Horizons Bible Study
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