Songs Across The Distance

“Open. Open your hearts to the dancing joy of the Holy One And let your love abound from heart to lips. In order to bring forth fruits for the Holy One, a holy life, And sing with attention in God’s light. Stand and be restored, All of you who were once flattened. Sing, you who were silent, Because your mouth has been opened.” -Odes of Solomon, Book 1, Ode 8, verses 1-4

“By the rivers of Babylon /Where we sat down /And there we wept /When we remembered Zion But the wicked carried us away in captivity/ Required from us a song /How can we sing King Alpha song in a strange land? Sing it out loud/ Sing a song of freedom, sister/ Sing a song of freedom, brother We gotta sing and shout it/ We gotta jump and shout it/ Shout the song of freedom now So let the words of our mouths/ And the meditation of our heart/ Be acceptable in Thy sight, oh Far I” -“By The Rivers of Babylon” by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton Based on Psalm 137

“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret life, bringing peace, abolishing strife.” – Khalil Gibran

Holy moments in the midst of music … maybe that happened just now, with the gift the choir just gave us… holy moments … Music has this power to bring us to a place of prayer, a place of openness to the presence of God.

Music has this power to connect to communicate across the distance between us. Music sings across the silence.

I invite you to remember a time when you heard a song that just did it for you, it was amazing how it expressed how you were feeling, and maybe made you feel less alone. Wow, someone knows my pain, someone knows my joy, someone knows the predicament I’m in. Music can reach in to us to bring out what’s inside.

And then, have you ever had the experience of hearing a song that communicated to you someone else’s experience, that was different from your own? The song brought you a little glimpse into someone else’s world and you could see their humanity a little better and you were a little less inclined to judge.

Music has this power to communicate across the gaps, to call across the distance, to sing across the silence. “A love that abounds from heart to lips.” The greatest distance that music can wash over may be the distance between ourselves and God. Let me share three stories, one from the U.S., one from South Africa, and one from El Salvador:

I was working in a bookstore. One of my coworkers put on for the overhead music “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane.

I was up on a ladder getting down overstock books. So I was up close to the speaker. And the music came to this place where it was like the clouds part and and great beams of light strike out and Coltrane’s saxophone entones these notes that just lift with “dancing joy.” Pure devotion. “A love that abounds from heart to lips.” And it took me up, this music – my heart opened and some greater power took over.

And I had to catch myself from falling off the ladder.

Now, John Coltrane and I don’t have a lot in common, in terms of life background. But this devotion to the Love Supreme is a universal language. And his genius created music that leapt across the divide, from God’s heart, to his, to mine, to countless others whom his music moves in devotion back to that mighty heart of God.

Another story: A couple years ago Rachel and I got to hear Hugh Masekela in concert with Vusi Mahlasela – two legendary South African musicians who were touring the United States together. Both of them are musicians with a powerful heart for humanity who were both part of the struggle against apartheid.

Masekela sang a song called “Stimela – Coal Train” (the literal coal train, here, not the St. John Coltrane). Here are the words:

“There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi there is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe, There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique, From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Zwaziland, From all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa. This train carries young and old, African men Who are conscripted to come and work on contract In the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg And its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day For almost no pay. Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth. When they are digging and drilling that shiny mighty evasive stone, Or when they dish that mish mesh mush food into their iron plates with the iron shank. Or when they sit in their stinking, funky, filthy, Flea-ridden barracks and hostels. They think about the loved ones they may never see again Because they might have already been forcibly removed From where they last left them Or wantonly murdered in the dead of night By roving, marauding gangs of no particular origin, We are told. they think about their lands, their herds That were taken away from them With a gun, bomb, teargas and the cannon. And when they hear that Choo-Choo train They always curse, curse the coal train, The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.”

These words were carried by this powerful, percussive rhythm. And when Masekela left the words behind and put his trumpet to his lips what he played was sad and soaring and roiling and strong and noble.

Now, I’m about as far away as you can get from a Mozambican miner laboring off in the mines outside Jo’burg. I can never say I understand what it’s like. But this musical experience that Masekela created transmitted something very powerful and very real about the humanity of the people he was singing about.

Hugh Masekela wrote this song first for the workers themselves, to sing of their humanity and struggle. But he wrote it second for people who hate them, for South Africans who resent migrant laborers who, they are made to understand, “come into our country and take our jobs.” There’s been terrible violence against migrant laborers in South Africa. This song, then, is an act of peacemaking, it’s a powerful effort of the human heart to communicate across the divide: “They’re struggling like you’re struggling. You have much more in common in this busted old world than you have that divides you. Maybe we’re all in this together.”

Maybe we’re all in this together … the last story comes from El Salvador. I was there working with a group called CRISPAZ – Cristianos por la Paz en El Salvador. I spent some time with the folks at Radio Victoria, in the north of the country. It’s a radio station, run mostly by these outstanding young people, that does what a good radio station does – it broadcasts across the distance between people. Music. Reporting. People’s stories.

For all of this, Radio Victoria had been received death threats. Chilling threats. Why? Well, a while ago a Canadian gold mining company did exploratory mining in the area. Local farmers discovered that this mining had poisoned their water sources. So they got together to try to put a stop to the mining. And Radio Victoria served as the amplifier for their message and their struggle.

The company, Pacific Rim, denies it has anything to do with what happened next. But a couple leaders in the movement were found at the bottom of wells. And the folks at the radio station received messages that they would be next.

Now, this is the kind of thing that can drive someone to take the enormous risk of leaving their homeland and migrating north, without documents, to live and work in our country. Where they may be met with hostility, rather than hospitality.

So I will never forget the experience of sitting one day with these courageous souls, when the Radio Victoria airwaves carried the powerful voice of the Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa, as she sang

“Sólo le pido a Dios que el dolor no me sea indiferente, que la reseca muerte no me encuentre vacío y solo, sin haber hecho lo suficiente.

Sólo le pido a Dios que la guerra no me sea indiferente, es un monstruo grande y pisa fuerte toda la pobre inocencia de la gente.”

“I only ask of God That I am not indifferent to pain, That death, parched, won’t find me Empty and alone, without having done enough.

I only ask of God That I am not indifferent to war. It is a giant monster and tramples People’s poor innocence.”

That should be prayer enough for us, as people seeking God’s Love Supreme in this busted and glorious old world. It is music that can carry this prayer. Maybe it is through music that God answers.

(Delivered May 21, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)

*The Salvadoran movement against gold mining interests was ultimately successful. They pressured their government to refuse claims to Pacific Rim. And when the company sued the country for violating its right to extract other people’s resources, a World Bank court ruled against them. For more, read here.

#MusicandSocialMovements #ImmigrantsRights #MercedesSosa #MusicandCommunity #RadioVictoria #OdesofSolomon #JohnColtrane #CRISPAZ #HughMasekela

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