At some point each day, having listened to the same song most of the day, Johnny Dark takes out his phone, points it toward a mirror in his darkened home before hitting record, and begins to sing. When he’s finished he uploads the song to his YouTube channel where it joins a collection that has been building for years.
I learned about Johnny Dark from a recent episode of This American Life. It turns out that the man singing from the seclusion of his living room has been in show business most of his life, an old school entertainer turned stand-up comedian best known for appearing regularly with David Letterman on The Late Show.
Early during the show we learn that the videos Johnny Dark uploads to his channel don’t have that many views. As I write this, his most recent five videos have been watched 31, 60, 28, 20, and 18 times. Why would a man who has spent his life preforming for crowds dedicate time each day to learning, recording, and uploading a song that almost no one will ever watch?
When he is asked a similar question toward the end of the interview Johnny Dark’s answer comes quickly. “It was in my heart, just like my wife. When I met my wife I had no choice. I didn’t want to get married! But that’s what love is, love doesn’t give you a choice, I don’t think. And neither does show business.”
Resurrection and Return
A few years ago I stayed with a friend on the west coast. At the time, my friend and his family were hosting some of their long-time friends from Europe who had spent many years serving refugees and migrants. These were some of the kindest and more joyful people I’d ever met; their dedication to the people they served was inspiring. During my short visit we enjoyed good conversation and French wine that was far too complex (expensive) for my unrefined palate.
At some point during one of these conversations this couple asked about my own ministry and the characteristics of racial reconciliation and justice that shape it. After I’d candidly described how entrenched white supremacy is in the US American context, including in many of our churches, they asked me about hope. Given the long odds against seeing the diminishment much less the defeat of racism in our lifetimes, what sort of hope animates our commitments?
Why do we keep singing if no one is watching?
I answered honestly, that my Christian sense about any question of sustaining hope must be rooted in Christ’s resurrection and return. Hope is entirely a matter of faith- that the tomb is empty, a sign of what is to come when the will of God is known finally and completely on earth as it is in heaven.
But don’t you see evidence of change, of progress? my conversation partners wanted to know. Don’t these bring you hope? Of course there are always signs of life. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
But we don’t often interpret the signs of the times accurately, or we miss them entirely. If hope depends on our own experiences of any given day, or month, or… well, we can quickly imagine hope as an accessory worn by those privileged enough to have more good days than bad. Any hope that is more responsive to what I’m capable of experiencing than to the tether holding me between Christ’s resurrection and return is a hope too weak to sustain me in the face of this world’s cruelty.
My new European friends didn’t quite disagree with this, but it wasn’t what they were looking for either. I was tempted to say more, to share some of the ways I’d seen racial reconciliation take root in our church. But this wouldn’t have been true; every time I think I see a mustard seed take root another is snatched from the path. At some point I began to learn that the truly sustaining hope must remain beyond what my eyes could see and my senses interpret.
One Year Later
I’m thinking about the anchors the keep us true as more than a year has past since George Floyd was murdered. What is it about this instance of public brutality? I heard asked again and again over the past twelve months. What’s different this time? The questions were motivated by a visible phenomenon: white people speaking out and showing up for racial justice in numbers without precedent in this country. We’ve not seen this before, said friends who knew what they were talking about.
I wondered though, is it different? Today, white people’s support for Black Lives Matter has dropped across the board, efforts at police reform have largely stalled, and corporations continue to play both sides, sloganeering with justice language while hedging their bets with contributions to politicians who are bent on rolling back access to the ballot.
I’ve spent a lot of time this year talking with white pastors and ministry leaders who are trying to lead their people toward justice. In their congregations the action, if there is any, is generally limited to book discussions and the occasional sermon. And even these tiny steps, so small as to border on offensive given the fraught circumstances faced by those outside the privileged walls of whiteness, even these innocuous steps are often vociferously opposed. Pastors are slandered and maligned; some have been fired and others have resigned for the well-being of their families.
They want to lead their people through the narrow gate, but it can seem as though no one wants to follow.
Psalm 137:4 asks, what is for me, one of the more haunting questions in Scripture. “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” It’s a question on the edge of despair. How can we sing – fight, work, organize, worship; how can we continue – when nothing around us awakens our song? When nothing around us has changed? When the exile appears complete?
I hope this is the question many of us are asking. Rather than sliding apathetically backward into the status quo, I hope we are at least asking whether it’s even possible to sing in this strange land. Because if we’re willing to ask, we might be shown an example, if not given an answer, by those who long ago found their voices in exile.
The question of hope, of anchors, of exilic songs has for generations been wrestled to the ground by faithful Christian people – Black and Brown and Indigenous women and men. It was these sisters and brothers who came to mind when I recently read Katherine Sonderegger’s description of the suffering saints.
This is why believers who suffer, sometimes brutally, sometimes through a long, harrowing life, can nevertheless lift up their voices to God not only in lament but also and more in praise. It is not that these faithful ones… blind themselves with cheap consolation, nor sigh with only protest allowed a suffering and desolate life. No! These lives of special sanctity have been made “more than conquerors” by their encounter with Reality itself, with the Divine Nature that just is Dynamic Life. The veil of this mortal life has been lifted, the door opened into the heavenly realm, and Life burst forth.
Johnny Dark’s solitary concert in the dark is impressive, not for its consistency but for where it comes from: an identity so rooted in song that he cannot help but sing, to hell with the view count. How much more astonishing is the legacy of the persevering saints, the ones who sing songs of righteousness and justice in exile and who’ve passed down the lyrics and the melodies from generation to generation. They sing – we sing – because we’ve encountered Reality itself. “This,” Sonderegger goes on to write, is not explained in Holy Scripture, and we are not given a theory of God’s indwelling His creation. Rather, we are shown it. And this is ‘wonder.’”
Mustard seeds. Yeast. Treasures hidden in a field. Signs and wonders, hints and glimpses of that thread which holds us fast, taught between the resurrection and the return. This is what will keep our faces set toward justice when eyes and ears fail us. This electric tension, running backward and forward, stretching through ancestors and descendants in the faith, is what inspires our songs at the edge of Babylon’s dark waters.