Not Songs but Sighs

When, during my high school years, I went to a stage production of the musical Godspell, one song in particular struck a chord with me. “On the Willows” was a haunting tune based on Psalm 137:1-4. Imagine my surprise when, upon returning home, I found that our Psalter Hymnal (blue at that time) also had a song based on Psalm 137—one that addressed the entire psalm! 

“By Babel’s Streams We Sat and Wept”is a song of lament that includes these words in the opening lines of the third verse: “Not songs but sighs to us belong.” That’s the feeling that fits me at this time, as we step into the final weeks of this year.

Many times, a psalm captures our thoughts and feelings. Walter Brueggemann, a well-known author and Bible interpreter, says there are three types of psalms. The first, “orientation,” brings us to focus on God and God’s divine order for His world. Brueggemann labels the second as “disorientation,” psalms that express the disarray of life, leading to lament. The third type he calls “reorientation,” psalms of hope and assurance giving rise to thanksgiving.

While I trust we all seek to walk faithfully in an ever-moving cycle of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation, some situations may call us to linger and reflect in just one of these areas. As I look back over the past year, I find myself lingering in disorientation, and the psalms of lament capture my feelings.

For some of us, it’s been a “sighs not songs” kind of year. Think with me the various challenges this year has brought: wildfires stretching from Alberta to Los Angeles, hurricanes and floods as well as earthquakes. These aren’t somebody else’s problem: just ask members of Christian Reformed congregations on the north side of Los Angeles—or those in Fort McMurray with memories from the year before. Touch base with any of the CRC’s in Houston or Miami; ask missionaries in Haiti or the Dominican Republic. Our brothers and sisters are hurting.

And the challenges intensify outside of North America. Floods in Sierra Leone and South Asia; Christians targeted and persecuted in Egypt and elsewhere; war and conflict in the Middle East; hundreds of thousands of refugees crowded into camps. Our brothers and sisters are hurting.

Our brothers and sisters are hurting in other ways as well. Imagine having come to the U.S. as a baby only to find out now that your home can no longer be your home. Picture living on a First Nations reserve in a country such as Canada and having no access to clean water. Think about being singled out for hate and protests based on the color of your skin. Consider the country of Iceland that, according to some reports, has nearly eradicated Down syndrome—by means of abortion. “Not songs but sighs to us belong.”

Even in lament, the Psalms are instructive, for they show us that we go to God with our fears and longings. Psalms of lament show us how to cry out to God. In so doing, they remind us to put our trust in God—in our covenant-keeping God. Psalm 31 states it in singular form: “But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord, I say ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand.”

Soon a new year will be upon us, and with it new times of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.  May we profess, as the song by gospel music legend Andrae Crouch proclaims, “through it all, I’ve learned to trust in Jesus; I’ve learned to trust in God.”

About the Author

Steven Timmermans served as the executive director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America from 2014 to 2020.

Steven Timmermans se desempeñó como director ejecutivo de la Iglesia Cristiana Reformada en América del Norte de 2014 a 2020.

Steven Timmermans는 2014 년부터 2020 년까지 북미에서 기독교 개혁 교회의 집행 이사로 재직했습니다.

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