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January 25, 2009



Questions to Ponder:  Where Is God?

Psalm 137:1-6; Psalm 139:1-10


            Have you heard the story about Chipper the parakeet?  He lived in a very nice condominium in New York City, right across from Central Park.  The owner of the condominium had a wonderful cage for Chipper, and he just sat inside on a little swing, singing, singing, singing.  A cleaning woman, who came in every week to tidy up the place, would dust, wash dishes, and put them away.  She would also scrub the bathroom and vacuum the entire condo. 

            One day while the woman was vacuuming the carpet, something clogged up the vacuum cleaner.  She took the head off and removed the obstruction.  As she did, she let the hose swing back over her shoulder.  It got too close to Chipper’s cage and just sucked the parakeet right away to oblivion, down the tube and into the bag.  She did not grasp what had happened for a few moments and continued cleaning until she noticed that Chipper was gone.  Realizing what could have possibly happened to Chipper, she quickly turned off the vacuum cleaner and removed the bag, now almost filled with dirt and debris.  The woman took the bag to the kitchen sink and tore it open, only to find the little parakeet among all the grit and lint.  She retrieved Chipper; and since he was so dirty, she thought it a good idea to wash him off under the cold stream of water from the faucet.  Then she carried him to the bathroom, plugged in the hairdryer, and blew him dry.  Afterwards, she put him back on his little perch.  Chipper has not sung since that episode.  He completely lost his song.

            The writer of Psalm 137 feels the same way Chipper did.  The psalmist raises a question to ponder:  How can we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?  The circumstances of this psalm are very clear:  the Babylonian Exile.  This psalmist’s deep love for the city of Jerusalem is apparent.  He remembers times when he sang those great songs of ascent while going up to the temple to worship there.  He remembers how the congregation would lift their voices and sing what was known as the Songs of Zion.  Now, he is hundreds of miles to the north by the waters of Babylon, most probably near those irrigation canals that ran between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.  He laments, “I cannot sing anymore.  I do not feel as if I can make any more music, so I am going to hang my harp on a tree – a poplar, a willow, a river birch.  If I fail to remember Jerusalem, my prayer is that my tongue will cleave to the roof of my mouth as if I had eaten too much peanut butter.  If I fail to remember Jerusalem, my prayer is that my right hand will wither so that I can no longer play the strings of the musical instrument.” 

How can you sing a song of the Lord in a strange land?  It is a question that is very important for all of us. 

When we look at Psalm 139, the other part of our text for this morning, we see an attitude that is completely different.  In the same way that Psalm 137 raises the question, “How can I sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?” Psalm 139 raises the question, “Where can I go to get away from the presence of God?”  The writer here declares, “God is always with me.  God has hemmed me in on all sides.  He is before me and behind me.  He is beside me.  No matter where I go, God is going to be by my side.  If I take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea, even there, God will be with me.”  The psalmist continues, asking God, “Where can I go to get away from your Spirit?  Where can I go to escape Your presence?  Even if I make my bed in the depths of the earth in Sheol, the place of the dead, even there, Your right hand will guide me and You will be with me.”

Both psalms, written during in the Exile, come out of the same life situation; yet the attitudes of the speakers are so different.  Psalm 137 shows an outlook of despair; an outlook that worship cannot occur.  Psalm 139 shows a completely different mind-set of optimism; a mind-set that attests that we can worship wherever we are.  The words Mike McGee spoke during the time of welcome this morning are so right.  We do come to the Lord’s House on the Sabbath to worship because we know that we are going to be in the presence of God.  The truth is that those who cannot be here today – those in a hospital bed, those bereaved, those in prison – can still worship God.  As Psalm 139 affirms, God is with us wherever we are.

It was out of this concept and because of the Babylonian Exile that the whole experience of synagogue Judaism developed.  In ancient Israel, worship occurred in the temple at Jerusalem.  Now living in exile and knowing that the temple has been destroyed, the people realize that they can still sing the songs of Zion, read the Scriptures, hear about God’s presence, and certainly worship, even in a strange land.  They can worship in a synagogue, a kind of miniature temple, with no animal sacrifice. 

Do you sing?  Do you have a song in your heart?  Most of us do, I think.  Most of us sing when bathing in the shower or when working in the yard.  Though some of us do not sing very well and would not want anyone to hear us, most of us have a song. 

What happens when people lose their song?  What happens when the circumstances of life are so difficult that singing seems impossible?

I want to take you on a little tour here through some of the music we experience in the United States.  The Blues grew from an uncertain origin, but most believe it began when slaves from Africa brought their own musical experience with them to this land.  They knew how to make music, and they certainly had stringed instruments somewhat like banjos and guitars.  Once Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, this music came to the fore.  Now, working primarily as sharecroppers, the blacks told of their experiences through music.  They sang about the hardships of life, the loneliness, the fatigue.  Musicians wove some of the spiritual songs they had heard into this type of music.  The Blues probably had a quick start in the Mississippi Delta, then moved up the river to Memphis and St. Louis and finally on to Chicago.  It really is music from the heartland. 

W.C. Handy, a composer and musician commonly known as the “Father of the Blues,” described a time when he was riding on a train and fell asleep.  When he awoke, he heard strange and very rhythmical music.  He watched a black man play his guitar by moving his pocketknife across the strings.  Handy, a connoisseur of music, recognized that this man was using that pocketknife in much the same way that Hawaiians used the steel guitar.  This was Handy’s first experience with Blues.  He said that though the strange-sounding music itself was mystifying, the tunes he heard stayed in his head.  That music conveyed ordinary life.

What happens to the music when you are in a strange land?  Does it change?  I believe it does. 

Much of the music composed during the Great Depression expressed the difficult circumstances of that time.  Perhaps you have heard “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”  The lyrics focus on a time when the narrator had had a job building railroads and tall buildings.  Now in a breadline, he asks, “Brother, can you spare a dime?”  Another song that came out of the Great Depression, “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” also focuses on hard times, but with a better attitude.  When people are going through a difficult time, I suppose their attitude could be that of Erma Bombeck who said, “If life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits?”  One of Wood Guthrie’s songs, also coming out of the Depression, was “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.”  This tune is about hobo utopia where the hens lay soft-boiled eggs and cigarettes grow on trees.  Songs have always come from difficult circumstances. 

The song most identified with the coal mining industry is one sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford.  Perhaps you remember the lyrics from 1946, “You load sixteen tons and what do you get?  Another day older and deeper in debt.  St. Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go.  I owe my soul to the company store.” 

I have always enjoyed country music because it captures the very heart of people.  Some especially are enjoyable to me because they are just downright funny.  Do you know “She Didn’t Cry when Old Yeller Died?”  Listen to the words: 

She never cried when Old Yeller died
She wasn’t washed in the blood of the Lamb
She never stood up for the Star Spangled Banner
And she wasn’t a John Wayne fan
Her baby blue eyes had the warning signs
That woman was bad to the bone
She never cried when Old Yeller died
So do you think I’ll cry when she’s gone?


American folk music songwriter Steve Goodman contacted his friend David Allan Coe, stating that he had composed what he thought was the perfect country western song, one entitled, “You Don’t Even Call Me by My Name.”  Coe wrote back and said, “No, Steve, you did not write the perfect country western song.  You didn’t say anything about Mama, trains, trucks, prison, or getting drunk.” Goodman then added another verse to his song.  I do not know whether that extra stanza made it the perfect country western song.  You decide.


Well, I was drunk the day my Mama got out of prison

And I went to pick her up in the rain. 

But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck,

She got runned over by a dang old train. (Revised Standard Version)

And I’ll hang around as long as you will let me. 

And I never minded standin’ in the rain. 

No, you don’t call me darlin’, darlin.’ 

You never even call me by my name.


Do you remember Johnny Cash’s “Daddy Sang Bass” a song about a family going through hard times?  Perhaps you remember the last line in the song,


I remember when I was a lad.

Times were hard and things were bad. 

But there’s a silver linin’ behind every cloud. 

Just poor people, that’s all we were.

Tryin’ to make a livin’ out of black land dirt. 

We’d get together in a family circle singin’ loud. 

Daddy sang bass, Mama sang tenor. 

Me and little brother would join right in there

Singing seems to help a trouble soul.



How can you sing a song of the Lord in a strange land?

I want you to save the date of March 15 on your calendar.  This year is the 200th anniversary of Singing Billy Walker, a Spartanburg native buried at Magnolia Cemetery.  On Sunday, March 15 at the 11:00 service, we are going to have a worship service in which we will remember the music of this important man who created what is known as shape-notes, a music notation designed to facilitate congregational singing.  The words and the tune to “Amazing Grace” were first put together in Singing Billy Walker’s hymnal called Southern Harmony.  Harry Eskew, a church music historian and professor at New Orleans Baptist Seminary, specializes in old Southern hymnody.  He is coming to Morningside to help us remember the hymns of Walker in a worship service you will not want to miss.  After the service, we will enjoy a fried chicken dinner. 

If we ever needed a song in our heart, it is right now.  Where is this strange land in our own lives?  Is it the Babylonian Exile?  No, we have our own strange lands.  Consider soldiers stationed in Iraq and in Afghanistan.  People who are a part of this church, people who are connected to this church family, are in those places.  Today Jane Gibbs and Margaret Edwards are in a strange land.  Their song might not be the same song you are accustomed to singing; but they, too, are in a place they have never been.  They need to know that they can have a song in their hearts following the deaths of their husbands.  Regardless of what our life situations are, the truth is that God is always with us.  He promises, “I will never leave you.  I will never forsake you.”  He will keep that promise, no matter what our life circumstances.  We can know that the strange land in which we find ourselves is a place where God will be present.

We have all heard so much about the bad economy.  We have read about it, and we have seen reports about it.  Every indication is that the economy is going to get worse and that it will last a long time.  We have been through this kind of difficult circumstance before as people, and we have endured.  Maybe you are familiar with Tom Brokaw’s book entitled The Greatest Generation.  In that book, he shares true stories about a generation of heroes who persevered during the difficult years of the Great Depression and World War II.  These individuals succeeded in their search for hope and led the movement to build modern America.  We, too, will bear the hardship of these times and survive.

I was reflecting just this week about the difficulty my own family experienced during the Great Depression.  I was not alive during those years, but I remember family members talking about the hardships they encountered.  One activity that helped my grandmother, grandfather, and their nine children was their time together in the family circle.  Every night, they would gather while my grandfather read the Bible.  They would all kneel together and pray.  Later, when I was a boy, I remember our family getting together around a piano.  Someone played the piano, and the rest of us sang hymns. 

This time in our lives is going to be a strange land for many people.  Businesses will close, and people will become unemployed.  We do have a choice.  We can choose to react as the psalmist in Psalm 137 did.  We can just quit and say, “I cannot worship anymore.  My song is gone.  There is no way I can sing.  There is no way I can worship.  There is no way I can pray.”  It is ironic that Psalm 137 has become the text for so many Christian songs, like the one sung today, “By the Waters of Babylon.”  That psalm has become the very background of so much music about surviving hard circumstances. 

The other attitude that we could choose is that of the author of Psalm 139.  We can believe, as he did, “God is with us.  There is nowhere we can go to get away from His Spirit.  He is going to be with us through thick and thin.  He is going to be with us in every circumstance.”  This is the testimony of the Bible from start to finish.  God never forsakes His people.  Isaiah 43:2, 5 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze…Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”  We can affirm that.  As the Christian church, we have to remind others that God is not absent.  He is always present with us.

At Christmastime, I had a conversation with a young woman who is going through a divorce.  She said, “You know, I have realized that I have not been singing.  I have not been singing for a long time.”  I found this to be very disappointing.  I remember that she used to come in after a hard test or after a particularly stressful event and sit down at the piano to play and sing.  I think she knows every line in every Broadway musical.  I have heard her sing them all.  Because she has always loved to sing, the very thought that she had lost her song was hard for me.  Recently, she told me, “I have my song back.  I am singing again.  I am singing in the choir at my church.  I have picked up my violin, and I am playing in the church orchestra.  I have had a hard time, but I have found my song again.”

That is the way it ought to be.  When we go through a difficult time, we might well ask, How can we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?  Maybe the better question is, How can we not sing a song of the Lord?  How can we not affirm that our God is in every circumstance, that He will be with us, that we have a song to sing and a message to deliver to all who will hear?  Our message, our anthem, that we often sing is, “God has never failed me yet.”  He will never fail us.

Do you know Christ Jesus?  If you have never accepted Christ as your Savior, may I extend an invitation to you to make him the Lord of your life?  Just say, “I want to invite Jesus to come into my life to save me from my sins.  I want a new song in my heart.”


Kirk H. Neely

© January 2009

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