I was reading Psalm 139 and a verse from Psalm 137 was underlined off to my left from years past. It caught my peripheral vision and drew me to itself like a magnet. It was the verse that said, "and on the poplars they hung their harps." At first, I wasn't taken by the phrase, but the longer I looked at it and the verses that surrounded it, the more my heart leapt within me.
It spoke of a time in Israel's history when they were exiled in Babylon because of their disobedience to God. The Levites, who were the musicians and storytellers of the Hebrew community, found themselves so downtrodden in spirit that they hung it up and with their resignation, the whole nation lost their song.
My heart for the artist within the church community has never beat stronger. I've always felt like the artist has been exiled for far too many years. So many artistic hearts have hung up their harps (their hearts) and the larger community of faith has suffered much in the wake of that decision.
But the Levites where always the "starving artists" in the Hebrew culture. They were the 13th tribe! They didn't have land, or home, or occupations, or income in and of themselves. They were called "unto the Lord" to speak for him and to be the go-betweens for the rest of the people. Everyone else gave a tithe to support them. They didn't fit anywhere, but they were scattered everywhere. They had no tribe to call their own, but they infiltrated each of the 12 tribes with the presence of God expressed through the mediums of music and storytelling.
They were invited into this "13th tribe" by Moses. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and the people were worshipping the golden calf, Moses asked who would stand with the Lord and the Levites rose up and stood next to him. They had always had a sensitivity to the presence of the Lord, they were guardians of His presence, keepers of the flame. Their hearts were tuned into the heart of God and they bore his heart to the remnants of Israel.
And yet, they were not part of the now famous 12 tribes of Israel. They were outsiders. They were the artists who injected meaning into truth, carried people to God, carried God to people, spoke on behalf of the tribes, shaped stories to be remembered and retold.
And when they hung their harps on the weeping willows next to the Euphrates River in Babylon, the whole community wept with them. Whenever the artists "hang it up" and give into the desire to quit, the whole community suffers. For wherever the artists' go, so goes the community. They are the spirit, they are the life-givers, they are the dispensers of hope, they are the awakeners of the heart. When they falter, they community convulses. When they resign to the fact that nothing will change, nothing changes. When they give up on expression, whether it be music, art, storytelling, prophecy, and mediation...the very oxygen of the camp is drawn out of its lungs.
They were the ones who led Israel into battle against Jericho. They played the instruments and blew the ram's horns, they were the ones who led the march around the wall before it fell, they were the ones who stepped into the Jordan River before it parted. They were the ones. The 13th tribe with the 6th sense. The tribeless tribe. The third wheel. The artisans.
And I'm calling them out of exile. I'm calling myself out of exile. We simply can't hang up our harps calling it a day. I can't begin to imagine the church without the artist. We won't survive another generation without them.
More could be said...but I'll leave it at that.