“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion . . . 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?” ~Psalm 137:1,3-4
Free Agents, how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? Where do we find the strength? Where do we find the courage? What are the harmonies we choose? What is the tempo of our song? In a land that has rejected, despised, and belittled us, how are we supposed to sing? This past week, Jeff Sessions was confirmed as the new Attorney General of the United States. Mr. Sessions’ nomination was hotly contested because of his history of discrimination against people of color over the course of his legal career. You might have seen Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts being silenced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when she stood to read a letter written in 1986 by Mrs. Coretta Scott King (the widow of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) because she believed that his conduct in Alabama made him unfit to become a federal judge. Her letter stated that as a judge, Mr. Sessions had “used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.” You can see her letter here. Despite the warnings of a black woman, the widow of our nation’s most respected Civil Rights Leader, we watched Sessions stand before the Senate again, being elevated again, because a group of white men were the deciding voters and they could silence anyone who disrupted their process.
Black women have voices, and our voices are meant to be heard. The problem is not our volume, nor our ability to articulate what we know to be true. The issue is that we consistently are not the power brokers. Despite what we say, we are never really the decision makers. Critiques of many of President Trump’s cabinet nominations are falling on deaf ears. I for one relate to the words of the Psalm printed above. I feel surrounded by tormentors who for sport are telling us to sing the songs of our hearts for their pleasure. The feeling of being taunted because I am now captive is humiliating and infuriating. But, we are free. We have agency. I think about the enslaved folks of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century America. They sang, didn’t they? We still sing some of their songs today. They were singing captives, and their captors took delight in their singing. But, we know the truth. We are aware that in their captivity, they sang the songs of freedom. They sang about their hope, and that hope was greater than just eschatological hope, it was hope for the here and now. Do we have that hope today?
When I was in my final year as Master of Divinity student at Yale, I participated in one of the traditions of our program which allowed graduating students to preach (usually brief) sermons during our daily chapel services. I was teamed up with one of my best friends from the program, and we were instructed to “preach” in the form of a story. So, about two years ago, I wrote and preached the sermon story below called “Singing the Lord’s Song in an Icy Land” based loosely on the Scripture above about finding my voice as a black woman in ministry.
“Singing the Lord’s Song in an Icy Land”
“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Or perhaps rather, as I have been asking myself the past few weeks, how can I sing the Lord’s song in an icy land?
Running is my thing. I love the feeling of lacing up my running shoes and heading out for a run. I experience the goodness of the Lord when I spend time alone, in motion, with nothing but my own thoughts as my soundtrack.
So, this time of year in New Haven is less than ideal for me. I do not mind the cold, or even the rain, but I do mind the heaviness of fallen snow and the malicious black ice threatening to take me out at every turn. My early morning sanctuary is frozen over. It is that morning run that offers me a constant opportunity to rediscover myself and to find my voice. It was during a run in the summer of 2012 that I first began to discover my preaching voice.
It was the summer before I started Divinity School. I had just graduated from college and I was one of three summer interns at my home church. By July, I had enjoyed numerous ministry opportunities, but I had not been behind the pulpit at all and I had absolutely no desire to change that. I did not have hypothetical trial sermons on my laptop, when I went to sleep at night, I had nightmares about preaching. I was terrified of the possibility that a career in ministry and even my mere enrollment in a Masters of Divinity program meant that I might potentially be asked to undertake the dreadful preaching task.
One fateful day toward the end of the summer, my senior pastor asked each intern to pick one of the three weekend services at which to be the worship leader. While not exactly an assignment to preach, this did require dreaded time in the pulpit. My fellow interns seemed to salivate over the assignment. I, on the other hand, wished I could disappear.
Don’t misunderstand me, I was a confident public speaker but I felt severely under-equipped to lead worship. Lead worship?!? Worship is something sacred and special that I could participate in but I never would think that I would be expected to lead the worship. From my perspective, little black girls barely into their twenties had no business standing behind pulpits with authority.
I had no doubt that my voice could make a difference in the world; I simply did not expect to do so from behind a pulpit. At the time, I had only a few models of black women in ordained ministry and certainly all of them were much more called, polished, seasoned, and confident than I was.
The morning after receiving my assignment, I woke up, laced up my running shoes, ran up the hill to leave my neighborhood, and headed out for my run. The only sound I could hear was my internal dialogue with God. We had time to wrestle that morning and my voice started to emerge. I started to hear my own voice, to hear the way it blended with the cloud of witnesses called to a preaching ministry. I began to situate my voice into the song we collectively were singing to the Lord.
Perhaps, I could sing the Lord’s song even in this foreign land. I could enter into this world that was filled with jargon I didn’t quite understand. I could enter a world that demands its inhabitants to listen to God and to find their own voice daily. This was no longer a foreign land; this was my new home and I could sing the Lord’s song within it. Although the terrain changes constantly beneath our feet, we are those who are called to sing the Lord’s song daily, even in an icy land.
The sermon story had a level of specificity about it. It was about how I, as a young black woman in ministry, found my voice as a preacher. But, I don’t want you to get stuck on the specificity of my story. You have a story too. You are trying to find your voice. You are trying to sing and be heard in a tundra that seems to devour every word you say before it even has time to emerge from your lips fully. Your chest hurts from yelling; your soul hurts from being unheard, your eyes sting from the cold wind. Nevertheless, the Lord needs your song. The Lord is waiting to hear the freedom song that emerges from our lips. The Lord is waiting to hear our Zion song. We are heard more clearly when we join our voices in perfect harmony. Peace to you. See you next week.