In the world in which I grew, we had a unique way of celebrating the New Year. I was raised in an extremely small, traditional, fundamentalist sect of the Christian faith. Like all things, like all people, this experience had its light side and its dark.
Bringing in the New Year was one of its brightest points, at least from my perspective. Every year, in the last week of December, we would gather deep in the heart of the Midwest, a few hundred of us, occasionally our ranks swelling to almost a thousand, members traveling from around the United States and beyond to join. As during other “church meetings”, we would have lengthy services twice a day throughout this period, pierced with as much good food and fellowship as we could find the energy to keep going for, and culminating in what was known as “singing in the New Year.”
In a rented auditorium the group would gather, and on the last night, after the regular service, which ran until 9:30 or so, we would break for refreshments and then gather back in the main room in plenary – as all our services were – for the most beautiful of traditions. That was when the singing began.
From 10:30 until midnight we would sing, first from the books that were published yearly for this occasion – we had many gifted songwriters in our group, with specially written masterpieces of four-part a cappella harmony. You see, the group didn’t believe in musical instruments in worship – only the human voice. And everyone learned to sing – even was trained in it, if desired, learning to sight read and sing four-part harmony. You knew early on if you were an alto or a soprano, and whether or not you could carry a tune in a bucket.
The singing would take your breath away, so many voices raised in spaces that echoed them back and back and back in rising circles. But most beautiful of all was when the songbooks were put away. The last hour or so, we sang from memory. The old songs. And I do mean OLD. The ones everyone knew the words to, from the eldest to the young. The same songs that our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents had sung, at least for those who had family history in the group.
About five or ten minutes ’til midnight, the man many considered the church patriarch would rise to his feet and walk on stage. Lynwood was a million years old from the day he was born. He never aged – he was beyond that, long long ago. And much as many of us younger folk resented his strict ways, his strength of faith was a thing of beauty.
Approaching the podium with measured tread, he would begin telling us the history of our songs, of our singing. He would remind us of the history of God’s people down through the ages, at least as he considered it – and he would tell us the stories about how, in Old Testament days, when the Israelites were taken captive time and time again, how they were always asked to sing. They were known for their beautiful music, and their captors always demanded entertainment.
From memory Lynwood would quote from the poems of the shepherd boy who became King David:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?
This passage always moved me deeply, as did the singing. This was one of the rare moments in that group when it felt like the heart was involved – when it was more than just rules and regulations. When you could feel the person next to you breathing. When you could feel the pain of those whose spirits had been broken. When you could feel love present in the room, feel compassion woven through the ethers.
And in the last minutes of the year, Lynwood would lead us in our final song. Perhaps you know it:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee….
While I draw this fleeting breath,
when mine eyes shall close in death,
when I rise to worlds unknown,
and behold thee on thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee.
The words came slowly, reverently, softly, so softly, the group as one, singing from the heart, tears streaming down faces as we thought about the previous year’s ups and downs, and, in many cases, relived our raw-edged losses, dreaming of seeing loved ones yet again in that place called Heaven that we were taught might welcome us upon our deaths, if we proved worthy – if we finished the race. In between the phrases, as breath was drawn, you could hear a pin drop in the cavernous hall. Somehow, somehow, we were making magic – and we didn’t even know it.
In the last seconds, as the clock began to strike, another elder, well-respected, compassionate, full of wisdom and much love, his heart long cracked open by tremendous loss in his own life, would stand up to the microphone and begin to pray. Not a big fancy prayer, with long words and long wind – but with simple words. Beautiful words. Humble words. Words of comfort. Words of hope. Words of love, and words of worship. Words wet along the edges with tears he could not keep inside.
It is a beautiful memory. I left that world long ago, realizing that it was not a space for breathing, at least not for me. But I can look back and remember some of the beautiful moments, and be grateful for having experienced them, for having that memory on which to draw.
And again, I think of the Israelites hanging their harps upon the willows. How often do we do that, in our day to day lives? Life rocks us in some way, cuts us to the bone, and we find ourselves broken, spirit flapping in the breeze, like a kite with half a string, a ship without a helmsman, a long-worn ragged windsock, blown to and fro, unsure, unsettled, unable to find our song.
Wherever life has led you, and on whatever willow you may have hung your harp, it is my deepest wish that in this new year, you may take down that instrument and begin again to find your song. Carefully, gently. Gingerly at first – the strings may be brittle with age and rust. But the music is still there, just waiting to be uncovered and loved back into existence. Pluck gently, strum lightly, and the strings will begin to quiver, first one and then another and another, until an entire symphony will come alive in your hands and burst into glorious brightness of beauty – your song again your own.
This is my deepest wish for you. Happy New Year, wherever it finds you. This year, may you sing the songs of Zion – whatever that means for you.
Namaste. And so it is. _/\_