Scripture: Exodus 15:1-21
There is a reason I keep a playlist of our favorite songs. In my phone’s music library, I have a top twenty playlist of everything from Encanto to Hamilton. Every song is one that gets added to the playlist when it becomes clear: this is a song that moves us. A song has a great dance beat, a melody we can sing, or a tune that we have sung together in important moments.
I keep this music at the ready because, for my family of young children, we have learned about the power of song and dance. Not just for the fun of a kitchen dance party, though we do love to rock out while we cook. My family has journeyed through trauma-informed parenting, pandemic parenting, and church grief. One thing we know? Music can reach us and heal us in ways that not many other things can.
My four children, a sibling group we adopted through foster care and a biological son, each have favorite songs. We have learned that singing along or moving our bodies in dance offers a physiological response. When an unexpected trigger sends my little boy’s body into fight-flight-freeze mode, we softly sing and tap our shoulders. Deep breaths, sing along. We know he is regulating when his little voice sings out.
These trauma-informed care moments are well-worn rhythms in our home. We know that people throughout the world are finding ways to attend to the traumas experienced over the past couple of years. Surviving pandemic life inflicted many of us with traumatic moments and a need for healing. Injustices and atrocities inflicted on people have left us reeling in many ways. The Israelites in Exodus 15 may have looked around and wondered, too: If we have passed through the waters, what do we do next? And, why are we singing?
These days, when I turn on the news and hear singing, I immediately wonder what the music is doing. I heard little Amelia, a young girl in a bomb shelter in Kiev, Ukraine, and her song was immediately familiar. The viral video shows Amelia singing “Let It Go” in Russian while her family huddled in the shelter. In the video, she closes her eyes and sings over the clamor of people sheltered beside her. I let my children watch this video with me, hopeful to put a face to the simple explanations we had offered them about the war in Ukraine. Within a couple of notes, my children sang along, in English. “Here I stand, in the light of day,” their voices rang. A song they knew by heart.
I wonder how Amelia’s parents knew the time was right for her to sing. It would have been easy to hush her, give her a task, or simply weep for all that had been lost. But something prompted a song.
I wonder how many times MiriamMoses' and Aaron's sister who danced after the exodus More had sung beside the water.
I wonder how many times she had stood beside a river and put words and tune to the depth of feelings in her heart. MosesProphet who led Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land and received the law at Sinai More had already brought her near the water years earlier. Did the fear she had as a child fuel her adult-sized fears? Looking behind you to see that the waters are held back, while you and your community step into an unknown land. Miriam is “the first woman who appears, not as someone’s wife or mother, but in the active affairs of emerging Israel.” Miriam is a woman of valor. But even a mighty prophetess like Miriam might carry an ocean of feelings.
How does she interact with this moment? It makes sense that she would sing – this was a tradition among women to offer “a form of feminine leadership – participatory, experiential, internal, non-elitist, and of the oral tradition.” Songs celebrated heroic acts in battle after a victorious event. In fact, though the text would have us read this as Miriam echoing Moses’ lyrics here, scholars suggest that her words came first. The language is different, and it reads like his lofty words come from the simple truths in her song.
What strikes me is this: I wonder when she picked up the tambourine? Maybe she knew that her people needed a song, and she was ready with the music. This hymn is sung at one of two significant boundary crossing events in the life of the community: they are free from Egyptian slavery, and headed into a new journey.
Dr. Yolanda Pierce reminds us that in the Akan language of Ghana, “sankofa” is a term that translates to “go back and take.” Sankofa is an act of “taking from the past that which is good, and bringing it into the present” for a formative purpose. That is the work of this hymn, sung by Miriam and the women. They sing to reach back into the narratives that offered them guiding truths, and brought those stories forward in embodied ways. Voices sang about the God they knew, hands made a joyful noise, and feet stomped on muddy ground that they had not traveled before.
Miriam must have known: this moment needs a song.
Before they left the river and moved toward the desert; before they received nourishment in this land of wandering, before the grumbling began, before they left the places where they had known trauma, fear, and devastation . . . they reached for an instrument. They sang. They danced.
We might ask: How can we attend to the feelings that are present in us and offer those feelings the space to sing, move, or dance?
What would it mean for my community of faith to recognize traumas that have occurred among us and name those traumas in thoughtful liturgies?
What would an act of “sankofa,” bringing forth what was good, offer me in this present moment? What would that sound like in a song or look like in a movement of my body?
What music gives expression to the things I know are true, even when I am standing on the edge of a new journey?