Friday, November 4, 2011
It's raining outside as I am writing this. The weather has changed, and as I sit by my window writing, there is nothing but the sound of a beautiful rain.
I was thinking of two other times that I heard a beautiful rain. I've been thinking of these two memories because of the rain and because in my Wednesday Bible study, we have been learning how to read the Psalms. The Psalms are the hymnbook of Israel, the common prayer book. So many of the psalms are meant to be sung, not read. It completely changes the experience when you sing a psalm.
Several years ago, I was in Myanmar to visit a friend. Ash had made friends with a group of Burmese monks! (There is a large university for monks in that city.) There are so many reasons why that friendship was improbably and most definitely orchestrated by God. The monks were meeting with her to study the Bible and practice their English. When she told them that her teacher was coming to visit, they insisted that they must meet me, so one afternoon we visited them at the university. It was pouring down rain and we sat on the terrace of their dormitory. They told me they had just been reading the Psalms. They had memorized Psalm 42. One monk proudly recited it to me. I asked him if he knew that many of the psalms were songs, that they were intended to be sung. He asked me to sing one, so I sang Psalm 42, to the early American hymn tune "The Water is Wide." I will never forget how completely silent the entire building went. All the monks stopped their activities and listened. There was just the sound of the rain, and the notes of the psalm hanging in the air like droplets. And, I believe if longing could have a sound, we would have heard it.
Longing is what the psalms so beautifully express, especially the laments. We don't really have a lot of contemporary Christian laments in American church services these days, but I know where they can be found.
Our church has a partnership with Living Hope, a ministry in Cape Town, South Africa, led by John and Avril Thomas. Most of the work they do is with AIDS education/treatment and with rehabilitation/job training for displaced black South Africans. However, they told us a surprising discovery they'd made: There are lots of musicians and songwriters in the area, and Living Hope runs a Christian radio station. They want to support and develop the indigenous Christian music community, but they need help to teach these musicians and then record them. I will never forget when Avril Thomas leaned across the lunch table and said to Dennis, "What we need is some professional singers, songwriters, producers and engineers. Do you know any?" Do we ever! So every few years, we take a team of them to South Africa to lead a weekend music conference. We have classes for singers, songwriters, instrumentalists, worship leaders, sound engineers—you name it.
At one conference, I was teaching a three-part session for songwriters called Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. In the first session, we studied the Psalms. We talked about the different kinds of psalms, including laments. John and Avril had told us that one of the problems they felt the local musicians had was that they were trying to recreate American-style worship choruses, rather than write music more true to South Africa. So I challenged them: What could South African songwriters contribute to the body of worship for the church all over the world? The Psalmists wrote and prayed out of their own experiences.
"What are your experiences?" I asked. "What do you deal with?"
A long list came: poverty, injustice, oppression, discrimination, fear, powerlessness, hopelessness, hunger, sickness, war.
I suggested that they might be uniquely qualified to write laments.
The next afternoon, my fellow team member Joyce and I were conducting one-on-one critique sessions. It had been a long afternoon; Joyce and I were tired. It had just begun to pour down rain outside when a young man walked in with his guitar and sat down. His name was Nelson Buhe. He was a refugee from the Congo. His entire village had been destroyed by rebel soldiers. His father and brothers had been killed. Nelson had escaped. He was very soft spoken. He said that he had been in my class and had written a lament. I invited him to sing it for us.
Rain. Silence. And then, something I will never forget.
Nelson closed his eyes, began strumming his guitar and then threw back his head and poured out his heart. In Swahili, he mourned, "Where is God in Africa?" "Jesus Christ, reign in Africa!"
Joyce and I were speechless.
Nelson sang his song in the closing concert of the conference, and his fellow Africans wept. A floodgate was opened and the prayers for Africa poured out. Oh, the power of lamenting, when your heart breaks for the the things that break the heart of God! I believe there are believers around the world who could teach the church today how to lament. And in these day, we need to know how.
I am thinking of those brothers and sisters tonight as I listen to the rain.
Rain, rain, rain,
Oh, come. Never come.
Oh, come. Never come.
Oh, come to me,
- Ladysmith Black Mambazo