Just over a year ago, I took a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee. As our group from the US loaded the boat, one of the captains hung a US flag and began to play patriotic music over the boat sound system. Fortunately everyone in our group agreed to ask the boat DJ politely if we could enjoy the boat ride without the music. We left the flag alone.
We had just spent that day wading in the sea, collecting rocks, and visiting with the other tourists. Hours before loading the boat, we had stood on the banks and watched the sun go down.
We sang together that evening. We sang songs like O healing river, send down your waters. Other groups were singing too. In fact, one large group was in the water to witness several baptisms. They were singing Lord you have come to the lakeshore in a language unknown to us, but we knew the tune so we all hummed along.
I say we, but I actually did not have much of a voice at that point in the trip. I didn’t really feel like singing or humming. I wasn’t in the mood to sing songs of peace in a land where peace is so far from reality. I was feeling angry. It felt downright naïve to sing songs of peace. Earlier that morning our group passed through a heavily guarded Israeli checkpoint. We spent an hour walking through this gated maze like structure with hundreds of Palestinians trying to get to work and school. It felt like we were in a cattle shoot. Many of the armed guards when seeing our group from the U.S. would say Shalom, a Hebrew word for peace. So no, I didn’t feel much like singing or saying the word peace, and I certainly didn’t feel like hearing America the Beautiful on that boat ride.
Fast forward to present day and once again, I feel my muscles tighten a little when I hear and sing the word peace. I once again fear that peace is just one of those feel-good idealistic notions. I question whether those of us who hope and pray for peace really take the time and risks to understand the deep trauma of those most affected by violence. Are our songs of peace rooted in the lived realities of those crying out for a dawning of peace right here and now? Or is our singing or is our praying for peace just another way we push aside or gloss over the real-life, the real-lived traumas that so many people in our world face?
Sometimes I’m afraid this is the case, but does it need to be that way? Might we sing and might we pray in a way that leads us more deeply into not away from these realities?
I want to share two things that I read this week that gives me hope that yes, it is still worth gathering to sing and pray in the midst of the harsh realities of our world. There is a way to pray and sing this that leads us not just to feel better about our lives, but to be more honest and hopeful about the world around us.
The first writing comes from a friend in Chicago Lenora Rand.
“Advent,” she writes, “is meant to be a time when we sit with the way things really are and hold them tenderly and gently, with the hope for how things are meant to be. Advent is about saying there is this beautiful world we all want to believe in and be living in.
And there is a terrible not-yet-ness about that world. Advent is about facing the truth of what is right now, and remembering what it takes to get to a Christmas kind of world.”
Or as another writer puts it: “In this strange season when we are suspended between realization and expectation, may we be found honest about the darkness, more perceptive of the light.”
A second example comes from NPR host Scott Simon. He said some beautiful things about prayer during his Saturday morning show. He was talking about the “prayer shaming” that has occurred this week after several political leaders tweeted or spoke about praying for victims of violence. Debates have broken out about just how effective or noneffective prayer is. This was Scott Simon’s thoughtful response:
I don’t know how many weeks I’ve been at my desk in the middle of the day and seen a bulletin cross the screen – urgent, shooting. It could be most any and every week – the names of towns, Colorado Springs last week, San Bernadino this week, Roseburg, Ore. in October, Platte, S.D. in September, Lafayette, La in July, Omaha in January. And the victims, heroes and assailants sometimes seem to run together. There is almost not enough time to mourn before the next crime. And within minutes, familiar voices chime in on social media and news channels to say the latest shooting simply proves that they’re right, both those who say greater gun control is needed and those who say gun regulations don’t work.
I think a lot of people who pray don’t think of it as a replacement for deeds or an occasion to utter a gift list of desires. They pray to open their minds and hearts. They pray when words won’t come and emotions overwhelm. They pray to mark a loss and to try to make a moment of peace in a landscape of turmoil. They don’t see prayer as a substitute for action but the beginning. The merit of prayer is what people do after they say, amen.
When I was near the Sea of Galilee and unable to sing, I remember feeling so grateful to be surrounded by those who could sing and pray. When my hope was a little bruised, my traveling mates sang and they prayed in a way that wasn’t a substitute for action, but the beginning or the continuation of action.
We may not always have the strength to sing and pray; Our voices might be tight, our muscles tense and fatigued. And hopefully there are those among us who like Zechariah, the aging priest, who still dare to proclaim:
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. -Luke 1: 78-79
I can imagine Zechariah singing this song to his beloved child John and then reminding him that the merit of this song and this prayer is what we do after we say Amen.