A New Way of Singing
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
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Exodus 15: 20-21
20Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. 21And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
The Smile Behind the Mask
A few Sundays ago, CBS Sunday Morning presented a video reflection on smiling when your smile is behind a mask. Correspondent Jim Axelrod told a story about going to the supermarket and feeling a huge sense of gratitude for the cashier that was handling his things. He smiled at her, trying to convey his thankfulness. But... the person could not see his smile, because he was wearing a mask. This then led to him thinking about the importance of words in this COVID times. Tone and inflection, he says, are the new ways of smiling. We need to say "thank you" out loud. We need to find other ways to smile at each other.
This story, also connected to an experience I had. I was part of the Justice Rally/March that happened in August 29 and that was part of the Presbyterian Week of Action. To me, it was important to find a new way of raising my voice in a different way. When Pastor Alonzo invited me to play the Djembe, I said yes. But, I also took something with me that speaks to my identity as a Puerto Rican raising her voice to protest. I took a pandero with me. You could say that a pandero is a tambourine without cymbals, and it has been used in Puerto Rico during rallies and marches to mark the rhythm of those that are marching and to help raise their spirits. That was a new way of witnessing from my identity, declaring that Black Lives Matter, Puerto Rican style.
Definition of Witness
This story and this experience lead me to think precisely about witnessing. Smiling is a way of witnessing to gratitude. Playing a drum is a way of witnessing to justice. That lead to looking in the dictionary to see what definitions have been given to the word "witness". The first meanings are “to see, hear, or know by personal presence and perception” or "to be present at (an occurrence) as a formal witness, spectator, bystander, etc". These two meanings do not necessarily imply the use of your voice to talk about what you have seen. To me they describe a silent witness. You are just there, looking at to what is happening around you.
The second meaning is “to bear witness; testify; give or afford evidence”. This is more of an invitation to use your voice in a meaningful way to share what you have seen, or what you have felt with others.
When I was growing up, this second type of witnessing was very prevalent in church. During worship, people used to share what God had done. They would speak about an answered prayer, or share about a moment in which they felt that God had saved them from something bad that was going on in their lives. What I felt was that these testimonies, were ways of announcing God’s presence in the world, not as a theological abstraction but speaking about God as someone who acted, who cared, and who loved humanity in such a deep way… that They would be present even in the smallest of ways.
That is why the Bible passage that speaks about Miriam taking a tambourine in her hand and singing resonated with me… because it is an example of a way to give testimony or witnessing in an old but new way.
And Miriam Sang
Even though Miriam’s song is shorter than her brother Moses', I have always loved the image of this woman taking a tambourine and proclaiming out loud ““Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” I love this image, because women during that time did not necessarily raise their voice in song. They were very much silent witnesses of the story. And Miriam, in this moment (and in keeping with her outgoing personality... because she is the one that takes care of Moses and secures his future) does not hold back and sings.
Her song declares God’s power to command the mighty forces of nature. Her voice declares that God has saved Their people. All of her voice gives testimony that God has risen victorious against the forces of war and oppression.
She sings and she invites others to sing with her. What an amazing moment, when we get to see this woman taking her tambourine and lifting her voice to declare freedom and salvation, because God had liberated her people from the tyranny of Egypt. But as I look at her singing… I think about how I miss sharing my smile with others… and how I miss singing with you all.
A New Way of Singing
I miss singing because it tells stories. I miss singing precisely because it is my way of witnessing and inviting others to witness and to praise. Marcus was sharing some Sundays back that he did not see himself as a musician at some point in his life. Music has also been a very important part of my life, but I did not consider myself a singer for a long time. And then, when I’m starting to incorporate that to my identity… when I start to think that Marissa is a singer... the pandemic hits, and I cannot lead in singing anymore.
Nevertheless, in the same way that Jim Axelrod invited his viewers to find other ways to smile… I want to invite you to find other ways to sing and to witness because, in the same fashion that smiles can be contagious… singing and witnessing can be contagious too. Singing and witnessing in fact, can give freedom and light to a person that is dealing with great loss and pain.
In the essay ON WITNESS AND RESPAIR: A PERSONAL TRAGEDY FOLLOWED BY PANDEMIC, acclaimed novelist Jesmyn Ward shares how he lost her beloved husband—the father of her children—as COVID-19 swept across the country. She writes through their story and her grief and shares the devastation she felt when her husband died… but... she also shares how listening to the witnesses around her, helped her to regain hope and faith. In the essay, she shares how she cries every time she sees the protest around racial justice that have been happening. She writes..
“Even now, each day, they witness. They witness injustice. They witness this is America, this country that gaslit us for 400… years. Witness that my state Mississippi, waited until 2013 to ratify the 13th amendment... and didn’t remove the Confederate flag until 2020… How revelatory that others witness our battles and stand up....They go out in the middle of the pandemic, and they march”.
I believe she uses the word “witness” in the fullness of its meaning. People are not just looking silently at what is happening… they are prophetically denouncing… witnessing… singing.
She ends her essay sharing that one of the doctors told her, when her husband was dying, that the last sense to go is hearing. They can even forget who they are… but they hear you. And she states that even though she has gone through great grief... she is still listening to the voices that say… “I hear you… I hear you… You say… I love you… We love you… We ain’t going nowhere… I hear you say… we are here.
Like Miriam… this woman is inviting us to sing… to sing of the injustices that we see around us, because when we do so, we declare that God is near, that God cares, that for God, those lives that live in the margin, that have been forgotten, that have been made invisible, that have been violated… matter. In the same way that God did with God's people in Egypt and acted toward liberation, God is indeed doing the same thing… not caring how long it takes, because God does not give up... God ain't going nowhere… and we need to find new ways of singing… even if it is on Facebook or Instagram. Even if it is with our feet and with our tambourines and drums. Even having conversations that we did not have before… we need to sing… we need to witness… because someone needs to hear the affirmation… we are here... God is here.