This post was originally delivered as a sermon at First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, ON as part of a series looking at “Songs of Hope and Resilience.” The scripture text was Exodus 15: 20 – 21:
Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
Miriam, the prophet, sings this proclamation of God’s goodness in a moment of profound joy and deepest relief. Being born into slavery and now witnessing the long hoped for deliverance of her people, Miriam leads them in a song of celebration. We know Miriam from the book of Exodus. Long before this joyous moment on the sea shore, we met Miriam standing in trepidation on a riverbank. We meet her when she is young, but old enough to know the world is dangerous. She watches over her baby brother after her mother hides him in his basket. She bears witness to his adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter, and she serves as networker extraordinaire when she helps her own mother connect with Pharaoh’s daughter, arranging for her mother be paid to nurse and keep her own child safe. As firstborn myself I like how the grand story of Israel’s deliverance hinges in these beginning moments on the watchfulness and craftiness of an older sister. The rest of the Exodus story pans away from Miriam after this small riverside triumph. The text gives us no glimpse of her again until we see her leading this song on the shores of the Red Sea.
While we do not get more about about Miriam, scripture does give us many songs sung by women. Some, like this one, are celebratory songs of hope and resilience. Others, like the song of Deborah in Judges, recount stories of battles and military victories. Several, like those of the wailing women in the book of Jeremiah, are songs of lament and loss, sung to pay tribute to national tragedy and collective traumatic grief. Whether the songs were glad tidings of great joy or grief-filled dirges sung at the lowest moments, the songs of women played an important role in the life of ancient Israel. Singing and dancing, or wailing in grief, were important public roles that women filled. These were ways to pass on news of victories, to process loss, and strengthen the ties of their communities. There is some evidence to suggest that women could even train as skilled labourers in the art of public mourning. Certainly, the way they chose to compose their songs would have significant impact on the way the stories of victory and triumph were told and remembered by future generations. In a patriarchal world this was one significant way that women held political influence. Not happy with the king? Praise his rival in your victory song. Think your generals are incompetent? Sing of how Deborah and Jael were the true heroes of the battle. In singing, women had an influential public voice. We know that communities and nations are shaped by their stories. Singing was one important manner of communal story sharing. Miriam’s leading the women in song ushers in a tradition that weaves God’s movement, women’s experiences, and the nation’s connectedness together. The watchful sister becomes the wise prophet, making the memory of deliverance indelible within the fabric of Israel’s collective story and she leads them in song.
I work a high school with a strong music program. Singing is a big part of the community at there, or at least it has been. Having only been at the school during COVID I have yet to really experience this part of our school’s life myself. I can tell that it is missed, and this part of the community rhythm has been important to so many. Recently, with the need for protective measures loosening slightly, we have been able to hold choir practice again. As I was getting ready to leave school one afternoon I could hear the choir – masked and distanced, but still together – warming up as I walked down the hall. When I came into the main foyer I saw a number of my colleagues simply standing there, listening. It was only warm-up scales, but they were pausing to take in even a warbled morsel of voices singing in unison for the first time in nearly two years. Seeing the impromptu audience of office staff standing transfixed in the hallway made me think of a scene in movie The Shawshank Redemption. Set in a prison, the movie’s main theme reflects on “what does it mean to hope in dire circumstances?” The scene that came to mind is one where all the prisoners stand still having unexpectedly been given the chance to listen to a recording of Italian opera, struck by its beauty. The music transports them to another world, even if just for a moment. The warmup scales did the same thing. They pulled on my colleague’s memories of life in the before time, and transported them, even if just for a moment, to when the school could freely gather and sing together in chapel every week. For now we are still doing chapel separately in our classrooms, playing videos on youtube. But, one day, maybe not soon, but one day we’ll be able to sing together again.
Our chapel theme at school last year was “Resilience: strength in joining together.” As our chapels centred on this theme we heard talks from many different speakers – farmers, kayakers, singers, mental health practitioners, and pastors. We learned some practical strategies for managing anxiety, heard stories of people overcoming concussions and periods of low mental health, and were encouraged to spend time in nature to help us connect to our bodies and the land we live on. As with most things some lessons and stories seemed more interesting or relevant than others, of course. We had one chapel that was focused on mental health and practical things to do to build some resilience. I found it quite helpful, personally. But, then, during our class discussion after this particular chapel, I noticed that a student seemed a bit more agitated. They were shaking their head and had their brows a bit furrowed. I asked what was up. Their response, which started with a significant sigh, was “I’m tired of talking about resilience. If I have to hear the phrase ‘it’s ok to not be okay’ one more time I might explode.” There were groans of agreement throughout the room. “It’s okay to not be okay” – I am sure this phrase was coined to let people know that mental health struggles are common and nothing to be ashamed about. But for some of these high schoolers what was offered as an insightful note, a reassurance, had become a platitude, something that was too much and not enough at the same time.
I wouldn’t be surprised if most of us have found ourselves in that position as certain expressions throughout this pandemic have become cliché. As we have dealt with “unprecedented times” worked to “flatten curves” and dealt with endless “pivots” as we work towards “new normal” I am sure there are phrases that we would really rather never hear again. Maybe at this point Resilience is one of those words for you. It has been a big pandemic buzzword. Of course it has. We don’t need resilience when things are going well. One journalist, Michael Orsini, wants us to retire the word. Near the end of 2020 he wrote:
“Resilience is that ‘silver lining,’ the positive residue left from trauma and tragedy. We are exhorted to be or become resilient, to summon the inner strength to deal with what life has flung our way. Develop the capacity to deal with adversity and, presto, you can bounce back stronger than ever. … What if resilience is just another way of saying “get over it”? What if a positive attitude is not enough to pull you out of poverty? What if dealing with hatred and racism is not made better by just not letting it get to you? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?”Micheal Orsini, “Stop Asking Us to be Resilient,” Policy Options, 19 October 2020.
A question his reflection (and my student’s exasperated response)leaves me with is this question: when we focus on individual resilience, are we asking too much?
A feminist activist I follow, Julie Lalonde, wrote a memoir in which she unpacks her own immensely difficult story. In her 20s she found herself in an abusive romantic relationship that resulted in her being stalked for nearly a decade after she ended things. That she is still alive to tell the tale is remarkable given troubling statistics around femicide and domestic violence in Canada. She notes that her survival isn’t because she is stronger or better than others, just that she got lucky. The title of her memoir is “Resilience is Futile.” As she unpacks her personal story as a survivor of abuse and stalking, she notes that we often praise people for their supposed resilience, by which we mean to say that they are strong, adaptable, and even stoic in the face of great difficulties. Lalonde argues that this places too much on the individual going through trauma or loss. She writes:
“I’m not interested feeding the narrative that I’m a superwoman who can handle anything. I am not more resilient than … any of the other women and girls whose lives were stolen by misogynists. I’m not interested in individual stories of survival. I want to see us kick down the systems that force us to fight so hard in the first place.”Julie Lalonde, Resilience is Futile (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2020), Ellipsis 1/2.
Rather than focusing on individual determination her book invites us to consider the core societal weaknesses that make individual superstrength and resilience necessary. Put another way, when flood waters rise, instead of praising people for their ability to tread water we should make sure there are floatation devices, or better yet, lifeboats.
Lifeboats can come in many forms. A lifeboat for a woman in Julie’s position would have looked like better supports for women fleeing violence, and a legal system better setup to address stalking. A stronger support system that could have been resilient for her, instead of requiring resilience from her.
Likely, some of you can relate to parts of Julie’s story, having found yourself in a tricky situation where the lifeboats you needed didn’t exist, where everything was too much and not enough at the same time. You made it through by treading water. It was probably exhausting. And we can hold together the tension between being proud that you made it, while recognizing that situation was not something you should have had to make it through.
Also, it is likely that many of us can point to places where lifeboats made things more possible for us, where communities have cared for us, supported us, and helped us navigate difficult situations. Prayer trains, meal trains, childcare support, CERB or EI, a well-timed job offer, insurance that covers counselling or prescriptions. In so many ways our bigger society and our close-knit communities help shield against the need for some of us to be resilient on our own. They make it possible to navigate challenges while staying upright. So, my invitation here is not to consider how you each individually can be filled with hope and resilience, but to ask you to consider how you can help make your own communities more resilient on other people’s behalf. What lifeboat needs to be built or reinforced? Where are the flotation devices in your church, in your neighbourhood, or in you wider communities? Who always seems to be stuck treading water?
This idea, that systems and communities might consider what it looks like to be resilient for people, is partly why I am so interested in the songs of women in the Bible, like the one Miriam led as she and her people basked in the joy of their newfound freedom. It is a song for the moment, born out of relish and relief, to tell the tale of what God has done. It is also a song for the future. A tale to be told to remind their people who they are and what God has done for them. The celebration born in that ancient hour reaches into our present day. An anchor to hope. It is not a song of her own individual strength or stoicism, nor of any one individual Israelite’s determination and grit. It is a song about a group of people and their rescuing God, told to help future generations remember, to help this story seep into the fabric of Israel, becoming part of their identity as a community. So much so, that when another Miriam – known to us in English as Mary – hears that God is inviting her to participate in the divine deliverance of her people, she draws on this rich tradition and sings her own song, proclaiming the good that God will do. Confident, though she is young and knows the world is dangerous, that deliverance is possible.
“As it is, the girl who was instrumental in Moses’ rescue from the waters of the Nile now instrumentally and vocally leads Moses and Israel in celebration of their rescue through the waters of the sea; and like the women who served as midwives at the birth of Hebrew children in Egypt, she and her sisters bring to birth Israel’s new exodus-centered hymnody.”
Sources that were helpful in building the material in this sermon include:
 J. Gerald Janzen, “Song of Moses, Song of Miriam: Who Is Seconding Whom?” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Vol. 54, No. 2 (April, 1992), 219.
Julie Lalonde, Resilience is Futile (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2020).
Micheal Orsini, “Stop Asking Us to be Resilient,” Policy Options, 19 October 2020.