By Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,
I’ve been singing songs that are not my own. Some are songs that are in other languages; some are songs from other cultures and nations. I’ve been stumbling over words and music to tunes with which I am unfamiliar. I’ve been fumbling with sheet music of hymns and psalms that are not a part of my mother language. I’ve been singing a new song.
The music of my tradition is like the air I breathe. The songs that I have been raised with are such a part of my heart and soul that I don’t even recognize them as “music” and instead consider them a part of the language and vocabulary of my everyday speech. I came from a tradition in which we rarely sang out of a hymn book, even when we sang hymns. The songs were a part of the congregational DNA; sung so many times over that no one needed to refresh themselves with the lyrics. I can still sing all the stanzas to “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” or “Precious Lord.” Precious space in my brain, which I probably need for other stuff, is occupied by the songs, praises, hymns, chants, and worship music of my life.
So the new songs I have been singing recently break me out of my comfort zone. I don’t know which words are coming next and I need to rely on the sheet in my hands. I don’t know exactly how the tune goes, so I have to listen attentively to those around me. I don’t know if the song is sung in 2-part harmony or in unison, so I’ve got to listen and watch for clues. When singing these new songs, I am completely out of my comfort zone. And it is exactly in that place of discomfort where God speaks to me.
“Sing unto the Lord a new song.” There are times we must break away from the comforts of home, our mother tongue, and the dear and familiar. We must wrap our minds and our voices around a new song and a new praise. We must feel uncomfortable and out of sorts – so we never forget that we are surrounded by people who in our world, in our nation, in our communities – always feel out of sorts, unwelcome, and foreign.
“Sing unto the Lord a new song.” And something new may be revealed about the sacred and the holy. Recently, someone shared with me a worship song from a Nigerian Pentecostal tradition. While singing this song, I learned a new name for God and I sang of the divine in a new way. This “new song” has been feeding me spiritually, even as I am singing it alongside my the songs of my own tradition. In a language that is not my own, and a culture that is not my own, I am connecting with a God that transcends human categories, as well as a God that celebrates human distinctiveness.
This Lenten season, I pray that we sing new songs; songs that will stretch us and grow us. May we sing songs that remind us of God’s unfailing love for all of God’s creation.
Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Liaison with the Princeton University Center for African American Studies. She blogs @ Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar