Posts Tagged ‘song’

Last month I was traveling in the south. I ate at Bojangles and drank Incredible Iced Tea. I listened to Charlie Daniels Band. The Legend of Wooly Swamp is still stuck in my head.  If you have heard that song then you already know “you better not go at night.” You already know “There’s things out there in the middle of them woods, That make a strong man die from fright. Things that crawl and things that fly and things that creep around on the ground.” And you already know “they say the ghost of Lucius Clay gets up and he walks around.”

I was traveling to Florida to visit with Mom and Dad. My picture of Florida has always included touristy spots and beaches. But my picture is changing. Here Dad likes to photograph ospreys and bald eagles. I am surprised by the amount of farmland there. And I really enjoy the forests. I have discovered barred owls and wild turkeys. The locals keep telling me to be aware of panthers.

These forests contain wetlands and swamps. And these wetlands contain alligators. And Dad and I stalk them. I find it interesting they gather in groups called congregations. Sometimes when searching for alligators we run into Dad’s friend Hal. Hal stalks birds. Hal is knowledgeable; talking with him is like consulting a field guide. He has special equipment and the skills necessary to capture great photographs. He is into things like detail, light, and color. Once he photographs birds he creates wood carvings.

One evening while talking with Hal, the sun set quickly and we were caught in the dark. We headed back around the wetland and through the forest. In my mind I was hearing Charlie warn us about being here at night. I could hear the warning about the things in these woods and the things they can do to even those of us who are strong. We could not see what was flying and creeping around out here. And we were unsure of the whereabouts of one Lucius Clay. I can’t help but notice the night sounds in the Florida forest are not the same sounds I am used to. I suppose some fear those sounds. I suppose some fear the alligators. I suppose some fear the panther. While I can’t speak for Dad, I was keeping an eye out for Lucius.


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The Babylonian Blues

There is much to like about a barbeque restaurant. The smell of meat smoking, special sauce, the music. My mouth waters just thinking about it. More often than not, in my mind at least, the music of choice is the blues. Whether or not that is true – when I hear the blues, I think of barbeque.

Apparently, barbeque distracts me (I am thinking about brisket right now). Because I am trying to think about an old psalm. The psalms are set naturally to music and Psalm 137 is no exception. But if the psalms were a series of concerts, Psalm 137 is the place where the concert tour gets hi-jacked. There we find ourselves struggling to sing our songs. How are we expected to sing in a foreign wasteland?

Just listen… “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept… Upon the willows… We hung our harps.” Then “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Keep listening… “May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you.”

Instead of song, we get tears. The singers have literally hung up their instruments. Their tongues are sticking to the roof of their mouths. The point is, if this is a song, it is the blues. When we hear it we hear the heartache and disappointment and tears. We hear the blues. It is unclear who wrote this psalm. I propose it was someone with a name like Fat Matt, One Eyed Willie, or Skeeter.

But if we listen again, we might hear something more. We might hear the faint sound of tenacity. We might hear the desire to remember. We might hear the undercurrent of hope to sing again. We might hear a concerted effort to not forget.

I can’t help but find myself in a place where I wonder what will happen next. And then I hear the clanging of silverware. I am pretty sure I smell smoked brisket and my mouth begins to water when Skeeter walks out with the special sauce and sets it on the table. Did I mention that I get distracted by barbeque? My apologies, we are talking about Psalm 137. We are talking about the blues. But we sing this song with the recognition that things are not ok as they are. We sing this song with the expectancy that things will be different one day. We sing this song so we will not forget. It is time to reach into the branches and take down our instruments. It is time to sing.

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What are we to do when we gather as followers of Jesus? Can we begin with a meager “Hosanna!” or “Blessed is the King!” Does the text not tell us the stones will cry out if we do not? Virginia Stem Owens is a writer who enjoys playing with the sciences. I am fascinated by her contribution to this conversation. She suggests faith is always present in creation and that creation has always been more faithful than you and I.

Stem Owens tells us it is our place, our niche, “To give voice to the cry.” The stones are prepared and waiting to sing their praise song if we do not. She goes on “This is our big chance… Still the mute mountains, the dumb desert, the dying stars wait for us to provide a throat for their thanksgiving. There must be a great logjam in the cosmos. One can almost hear it groaning and creaking some summer nights, threatening to give way under the pressure of pent up praise.

What would happen if we stepped into our place? If we fulfilled our niche and gave voice to the cry? Stem Owens asks “Would morning stars sing together as they did when the cornerstone of creation was laid… Would the hidden sea creatures, full of a barbarous beauty, echo from the salted depths, and the innards of earth have themselves in roiling, molten music?”

She goes on “They are waiting – the mammoths metamorphosed into oil among the ferns, the ozone layer hovering like an eggshell over us, the alpine meadows sighing down mountainsides, the grizzlies and mosquitoes licking blood from their snouts – they are waiting to be sprung from their bondage to decay, to lift up and up and up their hearts. They are waiting for us to get our act together. To find out the answer to our interminable question of who we are.”

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I just heard a chorus frog. They are identifiable because they make a sound that may remind you of the noise you hear when you drag your thumb across the teeth of a comb. They are not the only singers I hear tonight. More often I am hearing wood frogs. Their song may remind you of a quack. Behind me are two barred owls creating a ruckus. But by far the dominant songs tonight are from spring peepers. How can such a loud sound come from such a small creature? It is a miracle that anything else can be heard at all.

I am on South Mountain, strangely named since it is the northernmost mountain of the Blue Ridge Mountain range. It is a cool night, I can see my breath. There is a clear sky, the spring stars have a soundtrack. Or these songs come with a light show. Either way, this is quite a concert.

Last week I was traveling. My route took me through and around the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mountains get their name because they look blue from a distance due to the isoprene released in the atmosphere by broadleaf trees. (Look at me using the language of organic chemistry). I followed these mountains north. The weather was warm. The windows were down. The radio was on. And I sang loudly. I am sure the mountains could hear me. Sometimes I was Don Henley, sometimes Willie Nelson, sometimes Tom Petty. I was Robert Plant, Dave Grohl, and Charlie Daniels. I am pretty sure I was Taylor Swift a couple of times and at least once I was Debby Harry. That’s right. Call me… Anytime.

The Blue Ridge Mountains begin in Georgia, peak in North Carolina, and travel north into Pennsylvania. And tonight on their northernmost ridge, the mountains sing to me. Perhaps to repay the favor. Perhaps to show me how it is really done. But I am glad to be on the receiving end of this song.

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There is a whole list of songs we associate with this time of year. I am surprised some of these lyrics are allowed to be sung in public. We sing “Glory to the newborn King.” “Let earth receive her King.” “Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord the newborn King.” We recognize these as songs of Christmas and cannot overlook how they insist that a King is born. When we sing the songs of Christmas we are singing about a change in the political landscape. We are singing about Kingdom Come. We are offering tribute to the rightful King.

It should not surprise us to find Mary singing such a world changing song in Luke 1. Mary’s song does not come out of nowhere. It is a response to the activity of God. She learns of God’s activity in two prior conversations. First, Mary speaks with an angel, Gabriel. This is one of the better known conversations of Advent. Actually, this is the best known conversation in Advent. Simply, it goes like this;

Gabriel – “Greetings… you will bear a son… He will be great and will become King… He will reign forever and His Kingdom will have no end.”

Mary – “Impossible.”

Gabriel – “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

In the second conversation Mary speaks with a barren, elderly woman and we are again reminded “Nothing will be impossible with God.” No wonder Mary sings.

She never would have thought that she, a humble bondslave, would give birth to a King. Her song talks about a Kingdom where the proud will be scattered and rulers will be brought down from their thrones and humble will be exalted and hungry will be filled and rich will be empty handed. It should not be lost on us that Luke goes on to add that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, perhaps because he thought himself king, just prior to the birth of Mary’s child King. We might read these chapters and listen to these songs and say “Impossible.” And Luke might reply that this is exactly the territory where God likes to work.

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Summertime Serenade

There is something enchanting about the forest at night. I was gathering firewood and setting up the tent when I first noticed the volume of background song being offered by cicadas. This continued while I took a short hike, while I read by the fire, and while I cooked meat on a stick. Cicada song is so common in the summer that we do not always notice when it is there. What is even more surprising is that I did not notice when it stopped. It was nearly dark when I realized the only song I could hear were katydids. It made me wonder what this sounded like at the transition. Is there a moment at dusk where harmonies can be heard as cicada song fades into a katydid chorus? The katydids were still singing after I had laid down looking up into a starry sky.

I awoke in the middle of the night, startled by a light shining directly into the tent. I turned slowly to see where it was coming from and was relieved to find the moon had positioned itself perfectly overhead to wake me with moonshine (don’t tell my mother). I lay back down and noticed the katydids were quiet and the constant background sound was now provided by the nearby stream. A whip poor will added occasional notes as I faded back to sleep.

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I am under the deciduous canopy of the Tuscarora State Forest after a thunderstorm.  Moments earlier rain was falling so hard that I could not see and thunder rumbled across the mountain.  Now I listen to the constant drip from taller trees to lower foliage and the forest floor.  And then, I hear the three-part flutelike song that belongs to the Wood Thrush.

The scientific name for the Wood Thrush is Hylocichia mustelina, roughly translated as “weasel-colored woodland thrush.”   And he is actually capable of singing a duet alone, harmonizing with himself to create a unique song.  While many songbirds answer a neighbors song with an identical song (as if trying to outperform the other at “songbird idol”), the Wood Thrush nearly always answers with a different song.

The first thrush was followed by another and then another and yet another.  Suddenly I was surrounded.  In a book The Great Animal Orchestra, Bernie Krause proposes that birds, along with other creatures of the forest, will fill unoccupied acoustical slots in order to communicate most effectively.  The result is that the forest sounds like a symphony.  I cannot prove that it is true but I find that idea fascinating.  I am convinced that these birds enjoy the way their voices sound alongside dripping accompaniment in the wet forest.

Krause introduces us to “bioacoustics” and describes earth as a concert hall.  As if we are part of a unique orchestra and every species is a voice in a “naturally wrought masterpiece.”  He talks about the forest as if it is singing to us.  His interest is less with individual sounds than with entire soundscapes.  He makes the case that every soundscape is as unique as our own voice “a unique voiceprint- a territorial sound-mark.”  For that reason, we once “read” soundscapes in much the same way that recipes are followed in cookbooks and routes are traced on a road map.

You may have already noticed that your backyard sounds different in the morning than at night.  Or different in July than in December.  Every day is a new song.  Every day a song like no other.  I wonder if I should be reading Genesis 1 as a growing symphony where the soundscape changes every day.  Set the stage, let there be light, cue the birds!  Each day, new songs and voices join with those that were there before.

I listen to the thrushes until dark.  A trip to the forest is like a front row seat to a grand performance.  Listen to that thunder, hear the drips fall afterward.  Listen as weasel colored birds surround you.  I stand in the middle of it all feeling an urge to join in the performance.  To “sing to the Lord a new song.”

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