Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Listen to the Lambs

I love music.

For me, depending on the state of my soul in a given moment, music can be therapy, can be celebration, or balm, or ground, or catalyst, or bridge, or agitator of my spirit, or pure expression of my heart.

Hearing music, I'm more susceptible to inner change than perhaps at any other time: the simple shift of a chord from minor to major at the end of a forlorn chant can be life-transforming. Making music, I feel more like I belong in this world than perhaps at any other time. The music simply takes me away, and by taking me away, it brings me home.

This past Sunday I had the privilege of visiting Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, having been asked to speak at the First United Methodist Church. Packing my bags and heading to the airport, I was physically tired and emotionally spent. I wasn't sure I could gather myself to be fully present to the people I was about to meet and effectively communicate with them.

I needn't have worried.

This church had a choir of maybe thirty voices. Just before I was to speak, that choir stood up and sang "Listen to the Lambs," an arrangement by R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943, pictured left) of an old African-American spiritual. Such music! Such voices! Such power and depth, such tenderness and mercy. From the moment that choir intoned its first note, I was lost, and in losing myself, I found a world.

Dett was Canadian, a descendant of runaway slaves who had escaped North to freedom and then founded the town in which he would be born. He arranged "Listen to the Lambs" (published in 1914) in the early years of the Great Migration, when millions of southern blacks were moving north, away from the brutal violence and enforced poverty of Jim Crow. In "Listen to the Lambs" you can hear their suffering, loss and grief; you can also hear their consolation, trust and hope. The laments, the longings--so particular, yet so universally and utterly human.

As the choir sang, I closed my eyes to listen. And suddenly there were faces everywhere. Faces of homeless men and women I had known while living voluntarily on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, a dozen years ago--those about whom I had come to Michigan to speak. Faces, too, of the workers now demonstrating across this country for their rights and for their dignity. Faces of the victims of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan. Faces of young people agitating for freedom at the risk of their lives across the Middle East and North Africa. Faces of refugees of war, everywhere. And faces of people I love, whom I want to love better.... So many, many faces.

I hid my face in my hands and wept. Nobody could hear me--the choir was in everybody's ears--but I wept so hard that my body was shaking, and the elderly couple sitting in the pew behind me, whom I had met during the passing of the peace, laid gentle hands on my shoulders, letting me know, I suppose, that I wasn't alone.

It doesn't matter what happened next. It doesn't matter what I stood up and said, or tried to say, once that choir was done with its anthem. It doesn't matter what effect I had, or didn't have, on the people who heard me speak.

What does matter is this: Because of the music, I saw the faces of the world. And because of the music, I saw them not through the lens of a camera, or of political calculations, or even of ethical imperatives. I saw them through the eye of the heart. When we behold our fellow human beings--our fellow creatures--this very planet--through the eye of the heart, there can be only healing. Violence is no longer possible. Neither is indifference, which is just violence of another sort.

What faces do you need to see?

I invite you to prepare yourself to see them. When you're ready, play this recording of "Listen to the Lambs," sung in 1955 by the Tuskegee Institute Choir. It's the best recording of Dett's arrangement I can find on the Internet. Turn up the volume on your computer. Let the music enter you, and bring you home.

(Note: If for some reason you can't see the viewer below, click here to visit YouTube and listen to the music.)

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