To the tune of grace

Oliver Sacks believed that the brain is the most incredible thing in the universe. He was a neurologist and a prolific writer who told us about The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other wondrous tales from the world inside our heads. I was clicking through some websites on music and memory, and in an article about dementia and the magic of iPods, the author quoted Sacks:

The past which is not recoverable in any other way seems to be sort of ‘embedded in amber,’ if you will, in music. Having severe dementia means one can remember very little of one’s past. But one will always remember familiar songs that one has listened to and sung. The parts of the brain that respond to music are very close to the parts of the brain concerned with memory, emotion, and mood … In amnesia, whether or not in Alzheimer’s, you lose your life. You have lost your past; you have lost your story; you have lost your identity to a considerable extent. You can at least get some feel of it and regain it, for a little while, with familiar music. People can regain a sense of identity, at least for a while.[1]

The story was about a social worker in New York, his name is Dan Cohen, who created personalized iPod playlists for people in elder care facilities, hoping to reconnect them with the music they love. Some of you may have seen the short video of Henry, an elderly Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home it has been viewed over 2 million times. He starts out slumped over and unresponsive but undergoes a remarkable transformation as he listens to music on a pair of headphones, music from when he was a young man. He starts humming along; he sits up in his  wheelchair, and his arms, his head, his entire upper body is dancing; his eyes are wide open, he sings along and when the music ends, he is able to answer questions and talk about his youth. Cohen calls it an “awakening response.”[2] Awakening to who you are amid the thick fog of memory loss. Of course I thought immediately about going to work on my nursing home playlist, just to make sure nobody would try to help me get in touch with myself by playing Bee Gees or Boney M – that could trigger a serious meltdown in old Thomas.

I wanted to know more about music and memory, because Psalm 78 is a song about remembering. “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart,” we read in Deuteronomy.[3] Remembering is essential for God’s people in order to be God’s people, and so is telling the story and singing the song.

Psalm 78 is a remarkable song, because it is largely about memory loss and forgetting. And it’s a long song, the second longest in the book, we only heard a snippet from it and we only heard it read, we didn’t sing it. And I wonder if we will remember, if we don’t sing the song, but only hear talk about snippets of the lyrics… Psalm 78 is a long song recalling the wilderness tests in a recurring pattern: there are the great deeds of God’s liberation and wonders of God’s provision; then there is the failure of the people to respond with trust and faithfulness to God’s faithfulness; which stirs God’s anger and yet in the end, at the conclusion of each of the glorious and sorry episodes, the singers recall the triumph of God’s compassion.

“We failed the wilderness test,” the singers of the psalm confess, “what was in our hearts was lack of trust and greed, and what poured out was grumbling and complaining.”

Psalm 78 a remarkable song, because the ancestors who started writing its lyrics didn’t photoshop the desert scenes to make themselves look a little better.

“We failed the test,” they sang and taught the next generation to sing. We forgot what God had done, and the miracles the Lord had shown us, who divided the sea and let us pass through it and made the waters stand like a heap; who led us in the daytime with a cloud, and through the night with a fiery light; who split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave us drink abundantly as from the deep, making streams come out of the rock and causing waters to flow down like rivers.[4] We failed the test. The promises were new and we had everything to learn then; everything to learn. What did we learn, you ask? We learned to sing of the faithfulness of God. We learned to tell, one generation to the next, the praiseworthy deeds and power of the Lord, the wonderful works God has done. We learned the song for ourselves and for them so they would put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God, but keep God’s commandments and not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, and whose spirit was not faithful to God.[5]

It is a humbling exercise to pass on a tradition that includes yourself and your generation among those who failed it, but such honesty may well be the most profound proclamation of God’s faithfulness. Israel’s parents and teachers didn’t tell their young ones, “We did everything just right back in the day, and you must learn to do the same.” No, they told them, “We have failed again and again in living as God’s people, but God has been faithful. We failed to remember God’s promise, we failed to obey the commandments of life, we failed to do justice, we didn’t love kindness, we didn’t walk humbly with our God, we didn’t remember when it mattered most but the One whose steadfast love endures forever remembered us.”

Psalm 78 is a maskil of Asaph, a teaching song written and composed by Asaph; but while it may have been born in the choir room, in a corner of the temple, it was conceived in a long struggle for freedom and against oppression, a struggle against hunger and thirst, against fear and despair, a struggle to live as God’s people. Israel’s trust in God was found at the bottom of all they could imagine, at the end of their strength, and at the very edge of what they could bear: nothing left to lean on but the promise of God. “The desert is only the real desert when it is too big for you,” wrote Mary Boulding, “when you do not know your way and have no reliance except God.”[6] When you live on water from a rock and bread from heaven and the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey.

The Hebrew slaves who followed Moses into the wilderness were pioneers of faith who went into the unknown much like their ancestors Abraham and Sarah who left all that was familiar to them in response to God’s promise. The promise was new then and it is new for every generation as we begin and continue the journey with our God. They set out and began to sing the song, every generation adding a line about their own shaky fidelity and the wondrous faithfulness of God.

One of the lines is a question, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”[7] It sounds innocent enough, like the kind of question a child might ask after drinking water from a rock in the desert. But the ancestors knew it wasn’t wide-eyed wonder that gave rise to the question; it was greed; it wasn’t hunger, but the desire for more; it wasn’t lack, but the craving of never enough. The ancestors remembered a banquet of overabundance and overindulgence that turned into a horrifying afterparty of wrath and death.[8]

“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” The line stuck with me because these days the whole world seems lost in the wilderness. It struck a chord when I read Oliver Sacks’s words,

In amnesia, whether or not in Alzheimer’s, you lose your life. You have lost your past; you have lost your story; you have lost your identity to a considerable extent.

It’s like we’re all waiting for someone to put a headset on our ears and play the song that will help us remember who we are and awaken us. It’s like we’re all waiting for someone to prepare a table for us in the wilderness to bring us together and teach our hearts to fear and not be afraid, to trust and sing and move on together. Someone to prepare a table for all of us who have failed each other so many times in all our loveless ways, in the merciless wilderness of a world our sins have made.

The song is older than any of our billboard charts. The lyrics are the stories of our lives and wanderings, the stories of our getting lost and getting stuck, and verse after verse, the last word is the triumph of grace. God prevails against our faithlessness. The cross shows us how far God is willing to go to embrace us in love, to suffer our violent rejection, and forgive us – all to reclaim sinful and forgetful humanity. God has spread a table in the wilderness, for us and for all, that we may taste and see life in fullness, and remember to sing the song to the tune of grace.



[2]; see also

[3] Deuteronomy 8:2

[4] See Psalm 78:11-16

[5] Psalm 78:7-8

[6] Mary Boulding, The Coming of God, 38.

[7] Ps 78:19

[8] Ps 78:21-31

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