I’d like for you to ponder this for a moment (I’d ask you to close your eyes if we were face-to-face) and imagine yourself in the bizarre reality of this story.
You are an Israelite running — running for your life — during a months-long stupor. You don’t know what’s going on … you have seen plagues come to terrorize on your people’s behalf, you have confusedly painted blood over your door (but your son is still alive), and nobody you know remembers the time before slavery. But right now, you are free. Your freedom is uncertain, and you must move quickly. So, you are running. Running for your life. Suddenly, you are up against a harrowing end: an impassable ocean. And an army is still hot on your trail.
Yep. You already know I am speaking of the Israelites running from Pharoah when they are desperate for a miracle. And what a miracle they get!
And you remember how God splits the sea down the middle for them to cross to the other side! Adding to the charm that then when they are safely across, He brings the walls of water crashing back down, burying the pursuing Egyptian army under the water. The scripture says that every last one of them is killed.
EVERY. LAST. ONE.
I’m singing my heart out to God—what a victory! He pitched horse and rider into the sea. God is my strength, God is my song, and, yes! God is my salvation. This is the kind of God I have and I’m telling the world! This is the God of my father— I’m spreading the news far and wide! God is a fighter, pure God, through and through. Pharaoh’s chariots and army he dumped in the sea, The elite of his officers he drowned in the Red Sea. Wild ocean waters poured over them; they sank like a rock in the deep blue sea.
Harsh, but true! This is a song of PRAISE, expressing supreme joy and thanksgiving at an incredibly intense act of gruesome violence. God — the same God we preach as a God of justice, equality, and peace — has just performed what can only be described as a necessary (but deity ordained) mass murder. And then, suddenly, it’s over… There is not one single Egyptian surviving to chase you. It’s all over. Lifetimes of turmoil and pain and living truth of inhumanity, all gone in an instant.
Okay, now this next analogy isn’t remotely as terrifying, and the difference in stakes is kinda ridiculous, but bear with me while I remember back in 2014 when the Seahawks trounced the Broncos in the Super Bowl. (You're still bearing with me, right?) And this is after what seemed to be the first unbeaten season in, oh, 914 years. Or something. See, as a lifelong Seattle sports fan, I forgot what it was like to win! For the bulk of an hour, I oscillated between jumping up and down and shouting “WE JUST WON THE SUPER BOWL!” and standing there profoundly saying “We just won the Super Bowl.” I am pretty sure I went to sleep that night whispering to myself, we just won the Superbowl???
The thing is, I know that when I am encountering wonder beyond what I can handle, I keep checking to confirm that what I see is in fact what’s in front of me or pinching myself to be sure that this is not some dream or fantasy, but right there.
Yeah, I know, it’s not football, but I imagine that this is just a smidgen of what the Israelites were experiencing at this moment (notice how it is repeated in verse!). They’re looking at each other, then back at the Red Sea, then turning around to make sure they are where they are. Did they see what they just saw? There is nothing to do but keep repeating, “The horse and rider are thrown into the sea! THE HORSE AND RIDER ARE THROWN INTO THE SEA. SING TO THE LORD FOR GOD HAS TRIUMPHED GLORIOUSLY. God, you saved my life!”
Okay, now what on earth does this have to do with musicals? I do have a wide-ranging background in musical theatre, but one of my usual responses to the complaint that “musicals aren’t real life” is this:
First, life throws us a lot that we can't comprehend. Right? Now read the Exodus verse again. And notice this: this verse IS the music! It is very much like the music we make with our hearts so when what we know and what we see is more than we can understand – so we make music.WE CAN BURST INTO SONG!
But this music is NOT limited to those who have a gift for melody and harmony. Rhythm and syncopation do not define it. It is not constrained by major and minor, sharp and flat, treble and bass. This music is what we make when we’ve seen more than we know how to make credible. Music is the soul reaching out to say what we have no way of speaking. And corresponding to that, what about dancing? Let me just add that that’s as inexplicably honest as music is! Nothing to do but flail about because your body cannot contain any more!
You know what I mean, don't you? I know you can think of many things in life that take your breath away: like the change of seasons or random acts of kindness or the fact that you see the same moon as everyone else. Like the aurora borealis or a baby's birth or bearing witness to a turning point in history. And there are other moments so astonishing that it hurts: the death of a loved one, the loss of a child, hurricanes, missiles, or crazy world leaders. You name it.
And you can name it, can’t you? I'm sure you can think of many moments in your life, good or bad, that have taken your breath away.
Second, those things we can't understand can be interpreted with music, and when those things happen, how about we embrace that strange moment when we know more than we can grasp? What say we allow the soul to release its language? Much like in the Pentecost story,the music of our souls will speak a language that we just don’t understand.
And it may also be that that language is just the thing someone you know may need to hear. No, I'm not suggesting you break into song in the supermarket, but feel free. And I'm not saying you need to write a song for every last profound moment of your life, but ... feel free! What I AM saying is that this experience with God through music is singularly personal to each of us.
And that kind of experience with God gives us a little peek into what brings you closer to Him so may we all gain exposure to a new way to consider the world.I pray that you always leave that channel open, and that your soul and God’s might meet, somehow, in the music.
"Don't worry if it's not good enough
for anyone else to hear; just sing ..."
-Joseph G. Reposo ("Sing," made popular by The Carpenters1974)
Jeffrey Wilsor is a lover of God, people, music, thinking, and writing. He is honored to practice these loves in his position as Minister of Music at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church in Seattle, WA.