Today was supposed to have been the last day of SXSW, the annual Austin festival of music, film, tech, and more. The streets and clubs and sidewalks that would have been teeming with hipsters from around the world are empty. We are all in our various homes (those of us lucky enough to have them) hoping to delay viral catastrophe.
I am still thinking about all the songwriters I typically see during this week in my town. Craftspeople who make tapestries with words, who turn air into art. And I was thinking of them when I considered the Psalm we said in virtual worship Sunday – Psalm 23.
Psalms are songs, they use words and music to help us – individually and collectively – express deep human emotion and experience. Even when you say them, the rhythm of the words is musical. They describe a wide range of experiences from agony to joy in a way that helps us feel less lonely in our sometimes angst-ridden humanity. When you hear one person’s experience expressed in song, both you and the songwriter know – I am not alone, someone else feels this, too.
This being Austin, I talked to a couple of songwriter friends about songs, psalms, and putting your words out there for the world to sing back to you. It is interesting, Psalms, especially the 23rd that I meditated upon today, are some of the most familiar words in any religious tradition. People of many different faiths or no faith at all know what comes after
“The Lord is my shepherd…”
Here’s something to contemplate – the Psalms are songs written to God. Yet they are also a part of scripture that is, in one way or another, understood to be God-sent. So who is singing to whom? My friend Jan Bozarth says there is no better feeling as a songwriter than having your words come back at you from an audience, when other people make your words their own. The psalms make that come true in both directions: God hears words of inspired scripture come back to God from us; we hear in the psalms God standing with us in the full range of our experiences.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me
Betty Soo, whose words I often sing in my car, notes that in modern songwriting there is an imperative to put your name on your work, to own it. Even when you want to share it, there is an industry built around stamping a song as yours or mine. Not really ours. The human crafters of the psalms, however, are anonymous, their work was meant to be lifted up by a whole people, on behalf of a whole people. And yet the words of the psalms can be experienced on both the individual and community level – I am walking through the valley of darkness and so are we. My cup overflows, and so does ours.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life
All the days of my life. Of our lives. Of our life together.
Sing me a psalm.
Let’s sing it together; it is at the very least a duet.
I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Perhaps in song and in psalm we are always at a community festival offering our words and our very selves to each other.