How Can I Keep From Singing?

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Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept 
when we remembered Zion. 
On the willows there
 we hung up our harps. 
For there our captors
 asked us for songs,
 and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
 in a foreign land? 
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, 
let my right hand wither! 
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, 
if I do not set Jerusalem
 above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites 
the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who pay you back
 what you have done to us! 
Happy shall they be who take your little ones 
and dash them against the rock!

"How Can I Keep From Singing?"

Etty Hillesum was a Jewish, Dutch student in her mid-twenties when her life in Amsterdam was interrupted by the Holocaust. Her diaries and letters weren’t published until the 1980’s, and they offer a startling testimony of the triumph of life and spirit in the face of demeaning and unyielding tragedy. One of the last things she wrote was a postcard, which she threw from the train as they left the Transit camp at Westerbork for Auschwitz. She would die in Auschwitz only a few months later at the age of 29. She wrote: “Father, mother, and Mischa are a few cars away…We left the camp singing.”

We left the camp singing. What a startling statement. Singing in the face of evil is an incandescent act of faith and hope. It seems that Etty was not alone in her singing. WE left the camp singing. Others joined her in singing. Drowned out perhaps by the train whistle and the clickity-clack of the train as it heaved into motion, they raised their voices in a song that became both protest and an affirmation of life.

How can I keep from singing?

Evidently Etty and her fellow prisoners were not alone in their music making during the Holocaust. For the past twenty years Italian pianist and musicologist Francesco Lotoro has been trying to trace and collect music that was composed by Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust. Lotoro has collected over 4,000 pieces, some of the musical scores were written on toilet paper or other scraps of paper. In a recent story on NPR, Lotoro quotes composer Viktor Ullmann, who died in the gas chambers in Auschwitz in 1944. Ullmann wrote: “By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon and our endeavor with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.” (Story by Sylvia Poggioli on January 25, 2013- NPR)

How can I keep from singing? Singing is composing faith in the face of despair.

The Psalm today reflects the complete desolation of a community who has so thoroughly lost their will for living that they can no longer sing. Where many of the Psalms were written with a universal application in mind, Psalm 137 reflects a very specific time and place in history. The Babylonian captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem left the community of exiles in complete despair. Even the resilient song within them has been crushed. Their captors make fun of them, asking them to sing particular songs of praise that are only supposed to be sung in the context of their beloved Jerusalem temple, which no longer exists. These song requests are like rubbing salt into the wound of their loss and desolation.

The Psalmist describes their depression and despair with painful accuracy. “Why even bother singing,” the people wonder. “Why not just hang up our instruments and place our weary heads on the grassy river banks, where our tears can mingle forever with the flow of river, can become one with the river of life?” We are drawn into their plight and our hearts resonate with sympathy. We know what that kind of despair feels like, to have the song of life dry up within us. But suddenly, abruptly the Psalm becomes ugly. In a fit of unbridled rage the Psalmist blurts out: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Surely we can understand that rage as well, the fury of the helpless victim against the violator. We might even sympathize. And even if we have not had moments of such extreme rage, we can understand the value of anger. There are times when anger is our friend, for it helps us to find our voice, take a stand, and advocate for ourselves. Anger can mobilize us to honor our truest Self and to protect others who are in desperate need of our protection. But if anger becomes our permanent dwelling place, our capacity to move forward may be damaged beyond repair. Why are the people of God unable to sing any longer? Perhaps it is just this inability to move beyond the rage that robs the people of their song. Spending time nursing fantasies of revenge takes a lot of time and energy. Rehearsing speeches of hate drains our vocabulary of life giving hope. Mining our word hoards for the vocabulary of hate causes us to overlook the language of praise and thanksgiving. As Frederick Buechner put it: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

How can I keep from singing? By not letting go of the rage when it is time to move on. Perhaps singing helps us to rehearse a reality beyond the one that mires us down, so that our spirit develops the capacity for buoyancy, forgiveness, and compassion. Music is a bold testimony of faith.

For the next six weeks, Rev. Nancy Willbanks will be exploring the power of music as a gift of healing in the life of faith. I encourage you to be a part of this important Adult Forum. When we did the Wall of History event it became clear that music and the arts have long been an important part of this congregation’s expression of faith. After the Newtown, CT shootings in December, Tom Jones, our Minister of Music, and I had a long conversation about the healing power of music as a testimony of faith in the face of evil. He wrote to the choir, and gave me permission to share with you:

“I missed being with you on Sunday. I could have used the community for a place to be together as we all try to make sense of the terrible tragedy that happened. I look forward, even with great purpose and conviction, to experiencing the healing gift of music for both our congregation and for us!”

When I read Tom’s words a passage by Loren Eiseley came to mind. Eiseley, the anthropologist and nature writer, wrote of what he called a “natural revelation” in his essay “The Judgment of the Birds.” He describes how he hiked for half a day and then settled down to rest at the edge of a glade, with his back against a tree. He fell asleep. He described what happened next:

“The sun was warm there, and the murmurs of forest life blurred softly away into my sleep. When I awoke, dimly aware of some commotion and outcry in the clearing, the light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glade was lit like some vast cathedral. I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light, and there on the extended branch sat an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak.

The sound that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestling’s parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing. The sleek black monster was indifferent to them. He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment and sat still. Up to that point the little tragedy had followed the usual pattern. But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise. Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.

No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death.

And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.

The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.” (Italics mine.)(Loren Eiseley, “The Judgment of the Birds.” Quoted by Terry Tempest Williams in When Women Were Birds. The whole text of his essay can be found online at:

The birds sing because they were “singers of life, and not of death.” And so it is with us. Ultimately, we sing because God has created us to be singers of life. So, how can we keep from singing? Amen.


  • Pastor Meg Hess