Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek,
that I live among the tents of Kedar!
Psalm 120:5 (NIV)
One summer of high school I got a job pollinating corn. It was the closest I got to working in agriculture. It was a hot, sweaty boring job walking through the fields. Each day I came home I was yellow from head to foot with corn pollen. I worked in the field with my friend Brian, and I will always remember it as the summer that I learned about work songs. Our crew would sing together as we worked and Brian, being a bit of natural comic, made-up work songs (think Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat song) for us to sing as we made our way through the tall rows of corn. I still remember one song…
We work all day, and we work all night.
Three-ninety hour, hey! And that’s all right!
Work for the dolla, everybody holla!
My ol’ lady say, she say, “Bring home da pay,
Don’t you be gamblin’ it all away!”
I say, “No way, I’m gonna bring home da pay.
No way! I’m going gamblin’ today!”
There’s more, but I’ll spare you the part about hoecakes and a septic tank. I’m sure you get the idea. What connected with me that summer was that certain songs have a specific purpose in the human experience.
What that silly experience taught me that summer was that creativity often flourishes amidst repetitive, monotonous physical labor. My body was doing this repetitive act and my brain needed something to do. To this day, I find that some of my best message preparation and creative inspirations come when I’m engaged in some repetitive, mindless, physical activities like taking a shower, mowing the lawn, or doing the dishes.
The other thing I learned is that singing together as we worked helped create a sense of camaraderie. I couldn’t see my friends and co-workers through tall, thick corn stalks. Singing together made me feel less alone and reminded me that everyone on my crew was in this thing together. It was a fun way to pass the time in a boring job.
With today’s chapter, Psalm 120, our chapter-a-day journey brings us to a series of songs with the liner note: “a song of ascents.” The ancient Hebrews had seasonal religious festivals that required them to make a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem where they would worship and make both sacrifices and offerings. It was a national thing, so large groups of people from villages and communities all over would travel together. And, since “pilgrimage” in those days meant hoofing it for miles and days for most people, they would pass the time by singing songs as they “ascended” towards Mount Zion and up the steps of the temple.
Today’s ancient Hebrew ditty is just a short song of lament in which the singer cries out to God to deliver him from being the victim of deceit. He feels stranded in his situation. When he says “I dwell in Meshek” (a far-away city north in Asia Minor) and “I live among the tents of Kedar” (a far-way city south in Arabia) he was metaphorically singing about feeling like he was in exile. Sort of like me saying, “I feel alone in a crowd.”
So why would one sing this song on pilgrimage? I can only speculate that the seasonal festivals were waypoints of the year in which one would focus on bringing to God both their gratitude and laments. Going to the festival and worshipping at the temple was the time for an individual to take care of business with God, even the business of feeling the victim of other people’s deceits.
In the quiet this morning, the chapter has me thinking once again about the powerful role that music plays in my worship, my work, my play, and my life. It has me thinking about the spiritual journey of Lent that I’m in, and how music might play a role in that in a way I’ve never thought about. What songs can help me focus on this virtual pilgrimage of spirit? What if I created a playlist specifically for this season with songs that help center my heart and mind? What songs should I put on that list, and why?