This Sunday, Decatur Presbyterian celebrates a special anniversary. Matt McMahan, DPC’s Choir Director, and his wife Lori, DPC’s Children’s Choir Director, have served the church for 20 years. In preparation for this special worship service, Faith in Real Life reflected on the power of music. Melody has been used to express emotions words alone could not for ages. In the Bible, there’s no better example of this than the Psalms. It was there that FIRL began before turning to other works that have also inspired.

Psalm 42
1 As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? 3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help 6 and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.7 Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.8 By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.9 I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”10 As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

This Sunday, we will honor our Choir Director, Matt McMahan, and his wife, Lori, who has served as the Children’s Music Director. They have served this congregation for twenty years and have brought a dimension beyond words to our worship. To honor their work, it seemed appropriate to choose a psalm, from the songs of worship in our oldest tradition, to illustrate the amazing capacity of music to touch our deepest heart. So this blog will have two tracks, one will be to links to music– because words are always a very limited form of communication and the other will be an attempt to deal with the text.

Psalm 42 reflects much the same despair and the longing to make sense of an upside down world that we are encountering in our news today. The Israelites were God’s’ chosen people but they had been defeated in war and exiled to a foreign land. They were bereft and unprotected. Their oppressors taunted them as they worshiped —Where is your God? In the face of despair, the Israelites longed for God—”As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God”

The pain and displacement in our day is not much different. Human suffering surrounds us and the sheer volume of tragedy has left me numb and tired. It is hard to keep responding. The first hurricane (Harvey) evoked massive concern and significant economic support. Our church mobilized to send forty buckets of supplies to Texas. But before they could be shipped, Irma struck Florida, and the relief efforts were divided—emotionally and financially. And now Maria has left over three fourths of Puerto Rico without power. Though families are without food, shelter or drinkable water, No buckets have been gathered, much less shipped. The relief effort (or lack of it) has become a political football. People like you and me are desperate and homeless. It is not a question of deserving or of need. At issue is our ability to respond to the barrage of suffering. Even without the politics, if you are number three on the disaster list, there will be less help coming. Real life has exposed us once again. Human need always surpasses our ability to respond. How do we continue to love in the face of that depressing truth.

But then, everything got worse. Intentional malice struck. In eleven minutes, over five hundred people were gunned down and fifty nine killed. At least so far, there is no motive, no familiar pattern. There is only random injury and death. The gunman could be your next door neighbor. If you didn’t feel helpless in the face of overwhelming natural disaster, you almost surely feel so now, in the face of human malice. ‘Where is our God?’ How do we hold onto hope? We know something about what it was like for Israelites.

In FIRL, I played this requiem: The music was written for the over 250,000 killed in the tsunami of 2004 (very few people know, much less remember that over a quarter of a million people died in that tragedy).

Mother Mary, full of grace, awaken. All our homes are gone, our loved ones taken. Taken by the sea –
Mother Mary, calm our fears, have mercy.
Drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy.
Hear our mournful plea.
Our world has been shaken,
we wander our homelands, forsaken.

In the dark night of the soul,
bring some comfort to us all –
Oh, Mother Mary, come and carry us in your embrace;
that our sorrows may be faced.

Mary, fill the glass to overflowing.
Illuminate the path where we are going.
Have mercy on us all.
In funeral fires burning,
each flame to your mystery, returning.

In the dark night of the soul,
your shattered dreamers, make them whole –
Oh, Mother Mary, find us where we’ve fallen out of grace;
lead us to a higher place

In the dark night of the soul,
our broken hearts you can make whole –
Oh, Mother Mary, come and carry us in your embrace;
let us see your gentle face, Mary.

Music touches us in ways words can not. No set of eloquent words can give us the experience of a symphony. No amount of theology or biblical study can give us the experience of ‘safe’ with God. In this case, though the imagery of the words is outside of our tradition, the power of the music brought us to the experience of sadness and longing. The music opened the discussion.

We discussed times in our lives when those feelings were present and reflected upon how we got through them. One person commented that like the psalmist, even in the midst of despair, she remembered. Memory of God was sustaining even when God seemed absent. Another spoke of the death of her husband. She said that it was the first time in her life she felt hopeless. Her husband was dying and it was increasingly clear that the countless prayers of friends, family and church did not change his dying. But, and I’m paraphrasing here,” the destruction of one hope (that her husband would live) was not the destruction of all hope. It was not the hope I wanted but it ran under the horror I was feeling.”

The Israelites survived by remembering and by believing—in the face of despair and ridicule—in the steadfastness of God. Again we let music do the talking. This time I played Nada Te Turbe (Let Nothing Disturb You)

I was not familiar with this piece of music. I found it by surfing YouTube. It touched me, and it seemed appropriate that I could not understand the language. I had to find a translation for the lyrics. But even without the translation the music is a comfort. A reasonably good translation of the first verse is:

Let nothing disturb you,
let nothing frighten you,
everything passes,
but God stays.
Patience reaches all;
he who has God
lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.

Our faith claim is that, in God, there is a way when no way seems possible. That is what Jesus promised as he walked to the cross. His reliance upon God allowed him to keep walking. By doing so, he shows us that it is possible. Only by remembering God’s story and remembering our own real life experiences of loss, despair and hopelessness can we keep walking. It is how the ancient Israelites survived the exile and modern Jews survived the Holocaust. It is what gives us the capacity to persevere—the capacity to believe that love matters. No matter what happens to us, we are safe with God. Music can say that with and without words. We closed with a chant—In the Lord I’ll be ever Thankful

Words are important to me. I like to understand and I like to explain but at the end of day, music nourishes me in ways words rarely do. Thank you, Matt and Lori, for your dedication, skill and the music you bring to life.

In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful, In the Lord I shall rejoice, look to God, do not be afraid, lift up your voices the Lord is near, lift up your voices, the Lord is near.

Let it be so.