One of my gifts to the church, I sometimes joke, is that I don’t sing, but it’s not true. I sing frequently – a hymn or gospel song, a folk song or a song popular in my youth, something from a musical – sometimes aloud, sometimes only in my head. Most of the songs have been with me a long time, some a very long time. I didn’t choose to memorize them; they connected with me at a level deeper than choice and became not so much part of my repertory as expressions of who I am.
The first song I recall memorizing was “Dwelling in Beulah Land,” a gospel song I learned in vacation Bible school when I was seven or eight. “Far away the noise of strife upon my ear is falling, / Then I know the sins of earth beset on ev’ry hand: / Doubt and fear and things of earth in vain to me are calling, / None of these shall move me from Beulah land.”
The words must have stayed with me because, growing up with an abusive father, doubt and fear were the air I breathed, and Beulah land, Isaiah’s term for the condition in which Israel was no longer forsaken and desolate but was joined with God in perfect relationship (Isa. 62:4), became my imagined refuge of safety, respect, and peace. At the time, I didn’t know why that song chose me, but the song knew. It expressed a yearning I carried in my heart but couldn’t express, and it gave me hope that my yearning would one day be realized. So the song became part of me.
Other songs have chosen me: “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South; “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha; “O For a Faith That Will Not Shrink”; “How Firm a Foundation”; John Denver’s “The Garden Song”; “Mystery” from Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia; “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks. I could name others, and all of them express a glimpse of truth or a defining question that stirs at the heart of who I am. Singing them is part of my unfinished conversation with the universe. You also have songs like those, no doubt, and they are parts of the same conversation.
Singing those songs, or the way they sing in me, makes me think God turned out to be more a song writer than a legislator, more concerned with lyrics than with laws. God began with commandments, to be sure, ten of them, then 603 more, and more after those – prescribed, codified, objective, immutable, engraved in stone, and impractical because they were impossible to keep. Israel finally broke those laws so badly, the nation collapsed, its army was defeated, and its leaders, visionaries, and poets were led into a generation of exile and captivity.
Filmmaker Jonas Mekas said, “In the very end, civilizations perish because they listen to their politicians and not to their poets.” People perish because they put more faith in their legal and political establishment than in their artists and storytellers and poets, because they have more confidence in prescriptive and proscriptive rules for living than in living with creative freedom and imagination.
God must have learned that, because when Israel’s fidelity to a covenant based on law failed and the nation collapsed, God decided to rewrite the covenant on the human heart. “I will put my law within them,” God said, “and I will write it on their hearts.” No longer will one person teach another to know God, “for they shall all know me,” God said, “from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer. 31:31-34).
Writing this new covenant was a radical step. God didn’t change the content of the covenant – God would still be our God, regardless – but God changed its form. Once external and objective, the covenant would become internal and subjective; once immutable, it would become adaptive; once hard as stone, it would become soft as flesh and blood; once requiring absolute fidelity to its terms, it would invite imagination and creativity in its expression; once a holy dictation, it would become a human dialogue. Once a legal code, the covenant would become a repertory of songs, each song as unique as the individual singer.
I cannot recite the Ten Commandments from memory, much less the 603 other commands, but I can remember the songs God has given me to sing, and I can sing them for all I’m worth. John Wesley’s instructions for singing in The United Methodist Hymnal including this: “Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.” Richard and Karen Carpenter sang those instructions this way: “Sing, sing a song. / Make it simple to last your whole life long. / Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear. / Just sing, sing a song.”
So don’t worry about obeying God’s commandments. Just pay attention to what God has written on your heart, and sing the song God has given you to sing – lustily and with good courage.