Being a Gentile, I have no shema to sing. I am permitted to sing it, and Jesus lists it as the greatest commandment ("love your neighbor as yourself" actually comes second!) but I am not defined by it, as the Jews are. I don't think it will ever be as sacred to me as it is to them. I mean, it starts with "Hear, O Israel..." The closest that Christians have, I guess, is the Lord's Prayer. But the Lord's Prayer is a mealtime prayer; the words don't always feel appropriate for most situations in which I feel close to the divine. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done," maybe, but "give us this day our daily bread"? "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil"? Powerful words, and ones to be repeated daily (or at least once a week at the Lord's table), but they don't really communicate the idea that wow, God, this tree is really awesome! So somehow I find myself singing an equally inappropriate contemporary hymn, country singer Graham Ord's adaptation of Psalm 145 "The Lord is Gracious And Compassionate."
I first heard this song during evening service at Cedar Campus and it has been with me ever since. You know how some couples have a song--their song? God and me--this is our song. Even when I'm upset with him, or feel estranged from him (which has been pretty frequently, these days), I sing it. Because it's there. And he's there. And he knows I mean it when I sing it, even if no one else is around to hear.
There's a line that goes, "As far as the east is from the west--that's how far the Lord has removed our transgressions from us." Maybe this song means so much to me because I know, on a very personal level, just how far that is.
Today is Choir Day in the Methodist liturgical calendar. Our weekly reading was the well-known story of the disciples in the boat from Luke 8:22-25:
One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side of the lake." So they put out,
and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger.
They went to him and woke him up, shouting, "Master, Master, we are perishing!" And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.
He said to them, "Where is your faith?" They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, "Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?"
Since Methodists believe in the universal priesthood, today's sermon was delivered by our choir director. She talked in detail about the role of music in the Methodist tradition and in the Church in general, from the outlawing of women from church choirs in 594 to the diabolus in musica to the martyrdom of John Huss, who was burned at the stake for translating the Bible into German, with copies of his translation as the kindle; apocryphal tradition holds that he sang hymns in the local vernacular as the flames consumed him.
The centerpiece of the sermon was an anecdote from Wesley's mission to the American colonies: On the way to Georgia, where he had been invited to serve as minister for the then-fledgling settlement, his ship ran into a storm so powerful it snapped the mast right off. Naturally, everyone freaked out, oh shit, oh shit, we're all going to die! (My words, not hers.) The crew panicked. Wesley's followers panicked. Wesley himself flipped the fuck out. The only people who didn't panic were a group of Moravian settlers, who amidst the screaming and the crashing of the waves merely stood on deck, calmly singing hymns in their native German.
The choir reenacted this scene with a stepladder as the ship and sheets of blue and black construction paper as the ocean, and the tenors and sopranos making all sorts of silly wailing and whooshing noises. It was all very absurd, in the way an elementary school play is absurd, despite being heavy with the dramatic irony present in any folk history that makes light of tragedy. But then the voices of the singing Moravians started to rise, faint but unwavering, amidst the screams of anguish and the crashing of waves against the boat. A solemn, peaceful, and gently courageous expression of trust in the divine.
That, my friends, is the power of faith through song.