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Friday, March 27, 2020

Singing at the Head of the Army

     Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 
-Colossians 3:15-16 (NIV)


How’s your singing voice? Depending on where you live, the coronavirus crisis might give you the chance to exercise it.
     It started in Italy, during their lockdown; neighbors singing from balconies across narrow streets to pass the time and remind each other that no one was alone.
     Earlier this week, Chicago picked up the idea. Using social media, residents coordinated a Bon Jovi singalong (Livin’ On a Prayer) and later a Queen singalong (We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions). I’m not sure my neighborhood quite got the word; there was one group of people on the sidewalk singing Livin’ On a Prayer, but I don’t think they were quite in the spirit of the event. They weren’t inside singing out of their windows, or even social distancing, for that matter. 
     I get it, though. I get why people want to join together with others in a time of stress, anxiety, and difficulty to sing. It’s very human. Songs are a part of shared experience. They bond us, draw us together. Do you remember as a teenager singing along with a group of friends to a pop song during a car ride? It’s why we sing Happy Birthday together at a party. It’s why the military has marching songs. It’s why we sing The Star-Spangled Banner at patriotic occasions, it’s why camp songs exist.
     It’s also why people who worship God have always been singing people.
     I love the biblical story of Jehoshaphat’s singers. It’s not one of the familiar ones, so it might need a little setup. Jehoshaphat was a king of Judah who did his best to please the Lord (unlike some of his predecessors and successors). Facing a battle against an overwhelming army, Jehoshaphat went to God for assistance. God told him that he wouldn’t have to fight this battle, that God would win the battle for him before it had even started. He told Jehoshaphat to send his army out to be spectators, to have them take their positions “and see the deliverance the LORD will give you…”
     So the next day, the day of the battle, Jehoshaphat sends the army out as he normally would for battle. Except — well, that’s not quite true. He makes one little change, one that’s easily missed in the text, even. But there it is: “Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army…” 
     I’m no military strategist. I don’t know who usually goes into battle at the front of the army. Cavalry? Archers? Infantry? Your best soldiers? Your worst soldiers? At Normandy it was paratroopers and amphibious units, I think. The Germans in World War II used tanks and bombers to lead their forces forward. These days we usually fire some missiles from ships, planes, or drones before we send in the rest of the forces. I know this, though: no army, anywhere, at any time, puts the choir first. 
     Yet, that’s what Jehoshaphat does. I wonder what his Joint Chiefs of Staff thought of those plans. He doesn’t even have them singing a good militaristic song like Battle Hymn of the Republic or Marching to Zion. It seems like their repertoire consists of one song:
“Give thanks to the LORD,
For his love endures forever.”
     They’re heading out to battle with far superior forces, and their vanguard is a choir singing about love? I mean, I know God promised to fight this battle for them, but wouldn’t you have wanted to hedge your bets a little if you were in Jehoshaphat’s position? Wouldn’t you have wanted to lead with your cavalry or archers or infantry or something, just in case?
     Well, sure you would’ve. And that’s why Jehoshaphat didn’t.
     What Jehoshaphat does is an act of faith. Conventional wisdom says, sure, have faith in God. But also have a Plan B. If God doesn’t come through, Jehoshaphat’s Plan B is to probably lose the battle.
     Where’s your faith? Sometimes it’s easiest to tell by what you’re singing.
     There’s comfort in facing down a pandemic by singing Bon Jovi or Queen in solidarity with your neighbors. There’s a defiance in singing. Think of the string quartet in the movie Titanic playing Nearer, My God, to Thee while the ship sinks. (I'm not crying. You are!) I mean, sometimes you sing because there’s nothing else to do, and that can be an expression of trust that where your strength ends, God’s is just beginning. Sometimes maybe it seems like whistling past the graveyard. But one thing people who trust in God have always done is to express that trust by singing of his love in a world that seems filled with hate, or of his peace in the midst of chaos, or of his kingdom while petty tyrants flex and strut. Or of his salvation while enduring a pandemic.
         Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before they left the upper room and went to Gethsemane.
      Paul and Silas sang in prison.
     Later, Paul assured the church in Colosse that the message of Christ would live among them through singing. 
     As churches all over the world shift their worship services to live-streams during the COVID-19 crisis, one of the casualties has been singing. Preaching and teaching can survive the transition quite well. Communion can, to some degree. But singing? One of our worship leaders said it well: “I hate not being able to sing with people and experience the collective effort live. That’s a big part of the reason we do it.” He’s right, isn’t he? There is something lost when we sing by ourselves, or in family groups, at home as opposed to being together. It’s not the same.
     The loss, however, is only from our perspective. Singing is an act of faith, even when it feels like you’re the only one singing. Faith tells us that many others are too — family in Christ that you know, and family in Christ all over the world that you don’t know. Singing is an act of faith in a Father who loves us, a Savior who has given his life for us and who has risen to intercede for us, and a Spirit he has poured out to fill our lives, transform us into his image, and unite us together. 
     Psalm 137 is the counterpoint to the story of Jehoshaphat's army. Composed during the Babylonian captivity, the psalm tells of the Babylonians taunting the assimilated Israelites by asking them to sing some songs from home. “How can we sing the songs of the LORD in a foreign land?” the psalm asks. 
     Yet…it is a song. The psalmist must have found his voice. Our voices won’t always sound certain, either. Our songs won’t always be impressive. But singing them anyway is always an act of faith in our God, whose love endures forever and who will not abandon us now. We’ll shelter in place and watch for his salvation, knowing that in Jesus he  has already assured us of it.

     Let’s sing that out of our windows!       

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