FROM THE BOUNDARY - Jerusalem songs

We’re at the Gate of Mercy in Jerusalem. Jesus will soon be here from the Mount of Olives. You see how happy we are? Everyone’s singing, clapping our hands, dancing. We wouldn’t have missed it all for half of Judaea. It’s something to tell our grand-kids about. Our children are here of course, totally kid-like – jumping, running all over, disappearing, being themselves. Jesus loves them. We’ve seen him picking them up, cuddling the little ones, calling their names. He’s got such a kind heart. You know – we’ll never forget today, ever.

Well Jesus came, and just days later he was dead. Life’s like that, isn’t it, up and down, darkness and light, tears and laughter, joy and sorrow, heaven and hell?

Jerusalem songs: we’ve all heard them, haven’t we, songs, experiences, so amazing, so life changing and formative, so intimate, that we too will never forget them? They’re OUR stories we’ll tell in the twilight even if there isn’t a happy ending. In those wonderful moments, those oratorios of experience, the Spirit speaks in crescendo to greater things, as if some heavenly chorus has sung in worship, in praise – and just for us. Yes, they’re ‘Odes to Us’.
Our Jerusalem songs may take many forms – meeting a new girl, the birth of a child, an escape from a tricky situation, a graduation, the hiraeth feeling of coming home, the realisation that at 70 plus you can still do ballet despite the demon sciatica – and still want to. Yeah! It may not be a one-off. The song may be heard in snatches over time. Its melody may remain unsung, unrealised, for years and work its magic pianissimo because we didn’t really recognise it. It can still be life changing. This came home to me very forcibly this week.

As a child, maybe when I was six or seven, Sunday night was bath night! Imagine. A bath one night a week! But that’s how things were then. Mom used to bathe me in a galvanised tub in the sitting room in front of the fire. While I was being bathed, there was a radio programme of ‘classical’ music, and it was then that I first heard Paul Robeson sing.

His cavernous voice thrilled me to bits and he was always a favourite throughout my childhood. I knew no black people then. Dad told me he was black but I never thought about it. It didn’t seem important. I think the programme eventually became ‘Your Hundred Best Tunes’. There were two songs of his I particularly loved, ‘My Curly Headed Baby’ and ‘Mighty Like a Rose’. I could never forget them and, as I got older, I knew I wanted to sing like him. When my voice broke, it became very deep and I learned I was a bass like Paul – and that’s how it’s always been. At school they called me ‘The Growler’. Oh dear. When my kids were babies, I used to carry them at bedtime and sing my favourite Robeson’s to them, with the addition of the ‘Lullaby’ from ‘Sanders of the River’ when my daughter was born. It worked pretty well! But even then, I hadn’t fully appreciated that Paul, in his way, was ‘Renaissance Man’ – lawyer, athlete, singer, actor, activist – and that, like Josephine Baker, it was Europe which accepted him first despite his Soviet affections. Yeah for ‘American exceptionalism’! He once sang with the Welsh miners, bless him! A few years back I bought a signed photo of him – which brings me to this week.

I was on YouTube (listening to ‘Lady in Red’ of course) when I had the urge to listen to Paul. For reasons I can’t explain, I discovered the track ‘Testimony of Paul Robeson before the House Committee on un-American Activities, 12 June 1956’. I have never heard anything quite like it. Courage, strength, determination, nobility, heroism – they’re all there. “In Russia, for the first time I felt like a full human being. No colour prejudice like in Mississippi, like in Washington.” “Why do you not stay in Russia?” “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build THIS country…You are the un-Americans.”

I must tell you, when I heard him tears choked me. It was as if this man who, in my way, I’d known all my life, had never actually spoken directly to me until now. I feel so proud to have known him down the years. It’s how Jesus must have spoken to Pilate, to all those others who opposed him with their spite, their small-mindedness and hypocrisy. Yes. Jesus is to be lived not just read. Bless all those with courageous hearts, open to the world, honest, caring hearts no matter what.

Now I invite you to think about your own lives and find there your own Jerusalem songs. When you do, reflect on them. Draw strength from them. They’ve shaped you. Meanwhile, look – Jesus has entered Jerusalem and we’ll sing and dance more heartily still. His eyes fix on each of us. He’s calling us to Life for the rest of our life. How can we forget?

Go safely, then – until the next time.

Paul, from the boundary: “I shall take my voice wherever there are those who want to hear the melody of freedom…hope and courage in the face of fear” (Paul Robeson).

Barbados Advocate

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