Thursday, June 11, 2020

Protest Blues & Prayer | Why Do Caged Birds Sing?: Beholding Beauty even in Our Current Brutality

Cover Artwork for Album "The Caged Bird Sings"

Have you ever seen a caged bird sing? Have you ever wondered at such a sight? They sing because they're happy. They sing because they're free. "His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me."

Even a sparrow finds a home, and a swallow, a nest for herself where she places her young— near your altars, Lord of Armies, my King and my God. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent.But even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. + Psalm 84:3; Matthew 10:29-31

In the midst of this time of mounting challenges with the coronavirus pandemic continuing and the outbreak of injustice and protests as a confrontation to the horrific month of May 2020 for people of color (ex. see 
Pentecost Weekend Lament for Ahmaud, Breonna, & George), it's been necessary for me to turn to the verses above again to remember that God has not lost sight of us, but sees us, hears us, and is for us. 

And somehow in the midst of all of the racism, murder, hatred, ignorance, sickness, and death, Jesus' saving love is not diminished even when we are in the depths of awful suffering and incredible sorrow. Jesus, our Emmanuel, is God present with us in the pain and He can fill us with His Spirit to sing the blues and receive the balm of His love in a world longing for redemption and hope when we are so desperate and downcast. For a sermon from this past Pentecost weekend that speaks to this much more powerfully and prophetically than I ever could, please listen to Rev. Dr. Charlie Dates "I Can't Breathe."

The stories below bring to life this reality in brutal situations and are featured in African American author, podcaster, and pastor Robert Gelinas' creative and thought-provoking book, Finding Your Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith

Warning: Some of these stories below are harsh in providing a window into ugly persecution of human beings, and yet are also hopeful by looking at the Light of the world who sustains those who deeply suffer with a beauty beyond our first understanding or comprehension.

| 1 | Have you ever seen a caged bird sing?

In Romania a pastor was imprisoned and tortured without mercy. His captors put him in solitary confinement. Occasionally they would retrieve him, only to cut chunks of flesh from his body. Otherwise he was left to wither without food. It was a brutal existence. Remarkably, this man survived and would later describe "times when the joy of Christ so overcame him that he would pull himself up and shuffle about the cell in holy dance" (from The Character Traits of True Faith by Kent Hughes). When he was set free, he returned home and fasted for a day to commemorate the joy he had found in the midst of his cage.

| 2 |  Have you ever wondered at such a sight?

I'll never forget hearing the story of a girl from El Mozote in northeast El Salvador. This story was told to journalist Mark Danner by the soldier who had brutalized this girl on a hill called La Cruz – raping her many times during the course of the afternoon:

Through it all, while the other women of El Mozote had screamed and cried ... this girl had sung hymns, strange evangelical songs, and she kept right on singing, too, even after they had done what had to be done, and shot her in the chest. ... She had lain there on La Cruz with the blood flowing from her chest, and had kept on singing – a bit weaker than before, but still singing. And the soldiers, stupefied, had watched and pointed. Then when they had grown tired of the game and shot her again, and she sang still, their wonder began to turn to fear – until finally they had unsheathed their machetes ... and at last the singing had stopped (from The Massacre of El Mozote by Mark Danner).

| 3 | They sing because they're happy. They sing because they're free.

Beaten, bruised, and brutalized, Fannie Lou Hamer lay prostrate in her jail cell, unable to stand because of what local law enforcement officials had done to her, all in an attempt to put an end to her voter registration efforts in Mississippi. She could hear them plotting her death. And then she remembered the ancient story of Paul and Silas in prison (Acts 16:16-34). She began to sing – and she and her fellow caged birds transformed that dark damp jail into a cathedral of praise (from God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights by Charles Marsh).

| 4 | His eye is on the sparrow. 

It's such an odd sight to see a caged bird sing. All pent-up with no hope of escape. Yet it sings. It blesses, though it is not blessed. Ornithology is the study of birds. Those involved in this endeavor have surmised that the reason the caged bird sings is the same reason uncaged birds sing; they sing for love. In the wild, the song of the bird is for the purpose of attracting a mate. That desire cannot be taken away by mere confinement.

| 5 | And I know He watches me.

Jesus sang. In the upper room before they left for the place known as the "olive press," he and the disciples sang a hymn (Mark 14:26). Less than twenty-four hours later, Jesus hung on the cross, and in the midst of excruciating pain he sang again: "'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani?'  – which means, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" (Matthew 27:46). I don't think Jesus calmly quotes this question. I think he was singing. After all, the words originate from an ancient Hebrew song about his crucifixion – written and set to music centuries before he hung on the cross. 

Jesus sang.

                  For love.
That's why the caged birds sing.
                 He sang because we can now be happy.
           He sang because we are now free.

Jesus sang the blues!

Rooted in the stuff of life, the blues seek to find meaning in sorrow. A blues artist sings about that which has gone wrong and will keep singing until it turns upside down, until the smile appears. Through its repetition, it seeks to work out the pain until the pain gives way to ... Tragicomic hope. Paul wrote, "We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Jews needed rescuing from the Romans – and Christ died at the hands of their imperialistic rulers. The Romans respected power – and crushed God with their might. The gospel is a great reversal. Up is down. Right is left. Death is life. Christ crucified! We must embrace these jagged edges, knowing that in Christ and in the economy of his kingdom, not one drop of our worst moments need be wasted.

God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create – and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. + Martin Luther King Jr., at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964

Book Cover Illustration from
Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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