The Art of Singing in a Foreign Land

The journey toward Great Lent is well plotted, with lots of markers along the way to tell us how far we’ve come and how much further we have yet to go. There’s one I always sigh over, noting its appearance at Vigil for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, and that is ‘By the Waters of Babylon’, the 136th Psalm. In her maternal wisdom, the Church offers this psalm to us as a gentle remonstration. She encourages us to mourn like Israel’s children, weeping in the knowledge that it’s only because of our own forgetfulness, our carelessness, that we find ourselves slaves to an unkind master: the passions. Sorrowful regret stirs in our hearts as we recall and mourn our soul’s true home.

It is the muteness described in the psalm, though, that strikes me this year as especially poignant. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

There’s no doubt this is a strange, strange land we are living in. A skin of veneer is being stripped away, bit by bit, revealing the true nature of a soul-hungry god whose feet are clay. But as followers of Christ, we should know ourselves always to be residing in a foreign land. It’s a new, dark captivity to its lord we should be seeking to escape.

We are strangers in a strange land that is getting ever stranger. Our hearts are heavy, grieved at what the citizens of this land in which we find ourselves do, lawful things our weeping eyes cannot bear to see.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song?

It strikes me to look to America’s African slaves as mentors. Their captivity was not voluntary, like ours, but they were a people for whom the Lord’s song was salvation, who knew the art of singing in a foreign land.

In Slave Songs of the United States, an anthology printed in 1867, a single word, the second in the final verse, of the song ‘Down in the Valley to Pray’ speaks very eloquently of what wisdom is contained in their songs:

“O Mourner, let’s go down, down in the valley to pray.”

You require of us mirth, the slaves said, we will give you joyful sorrow. The song you demand we will sing in a key known only to our true master, the God of heaven and earth, using words you will hear and will not understand.

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O Lord, and Master of our lives, help us always to be homesick foreigners in this land that is not heaven. Take from us all faintheartedness, give us a spirit that is both humble and courageous, help us to see evil clearly, both in the world and in our hearts, and stand against it as we wait on You to make of it good. Our tongues shall not cleave to our mouths, for we shall remember You with longing and sing your song.


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