How shall we sing the LORD’s song upon an alien soil?
Psalm 137:4, BCP
Had we been living in Israel in 586 bce, we would likely have been among those captured when the nation came under the power of Babylon. Resettlement and eventual assimilation was that empire’s foreign policy. As faithful Jews, we might have wondered what God was doing, or resisted the tendency to settle down with foreign spouses and make the best of it.
Perhaps on the way to Babylon, or soon after we arrived, when we were still marked as outsiders, someone said, “Sing us a song of Zion.” They might have been mocking, or they might have been genuinely interested. We would stand mute before them—how could we sing the LORD’s song upon an alien soil? Singing the LORD’s song in Babylon might even have seemed blasphemy.
When we first enter Cancerland, we stand on alien soil. We are held in thrall to many varieties of medical people, who are ranked as plainly as in any military. They all speak—and may not define clearly—a new, unwelcome tongue. New customs, such as a chemotherapy or radiation, become part of our lives. Most of us resist assimilation. We are here against our wills and don’t want to get too comfortable here. We pray for this to be just a detour, not a new highway on which we will travel for the rest of our lives.
Singing the LORD’s song sometimes feels impossible. How can we praise God, rather than cast blame? Or sing, when all we want to do is weep or rage? And yet, God needs our voice, albeit ragged with tears, as part of the daily chorus of praise. There is always something for which we can be thankful: a skilled nurse who inserts the IV needle painlessly and in the right vein the first time; another patient who makes us laugh; the cool slither of cheesecake, the only food we can keep down.
Singing isn’t just for God, or for the benefit of those around us who need to know we are okay. Singing is good for us, a positive force for healing. When I was in chemo, I wasn’t sure if I could commit to the demanding rehearsal schedule and performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The conductor kindly suggested that I come to rehearsals for as long as I could, whether or not I could perform. “Music is so healing,” he said. I found that singing with eighty other people this affirmation of joy filled me with hope, even as I grew weaker and more tired from treatment. If I couldn’t sing in this concert, then the next one. Ultimately, I wasn’t strong enough to perform. The concert coincided with my final treatments, and I didn’t think I could stand long enough to sing, even if I had enough breath to hit the notes. The whole experience, however, taught me something about singing the LORD’s song in alien soil—we must.