I have always enjoyed singing at church. Even as a child -- from the Sunbeam Choir at Second Baptist Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I was three, to the youth choir at Bethel AME Church -- I loved joining with other voices, singing songs of praise together.
I come by it honestly. I grew up around grandmothers who sang spirituals and hymns in the kitchen as they cooked. My mother, a schoolteacher, listened to gospel records from her home church while she graded papers or worked on her graduate studies. Music is my default form of worship.
When I was in college, I joined my local church’s “all voices choir” for a women’s day performance. It was there that I learned the gospel song “Don’t Want No Rocks.”
The chorus repeats:
If I don’t praise the Lord, the rocks are going to cry out.
I don’t want no rocks crying out in my place.
As we rehearsed the song over and over, it became a part of me. Even today, I can still hear in my mind the alto harmony part that the choir director taught us.
Famously recorded by the Rev. Paul Jones, the song refers to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-40). It is a story I have heard every Palm Sunday of my life.
Jesus rides into the city on a donkey, with the crowds in some Gospel accounts waving palm branches, and in Luke’s account shouting, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38 NRSV).
When the Pharisees tell Jesus to rebuke the disciples, Jesus replies that if the disciples were to keep silent, the stones would cry out.
The song “Don’t Want No Rocks,” like Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees, suggests that praising God is so important that nature itself will take over if we Christians don’t praise God adequately.
Years ago, the song and its perspective on praise played an important role in my call to ordained ministry. At my moment of deepest wrestling, I felt that God was calling me to ministry -- and that if I didn’t answer in the affirmative, then everything around me would praise God because I wouldn’t.
I even imagined the furniture and books in my room having mouths like Muppets and praising God -- because I would not. Because I was scared. Because I said no. Because I wasn’t praising God.
I heard the song as part of a call to live my life as a testimony to the goodness of God. The message I heard: I’d better testify to the goodness of God or someone else would. Praising God, the song suggested to me, was about celebrating Jesus’ divinity. If I was to praise God through ordained ministry, then I needed to be like the disciples waving palm branches -- singing and celebrating and telling the world about Jesus. I sang this song in my mind and prayed, “Yes, God, I’ll do it. I’ll be a minister.”
This kind of celebration is not always easy for me. I live with a depressive condition. When I am depressed, I am more like a stone than a palm-branch-waving disciple.
I don’t move; I don’t praise; I don’t testify. I don’t make it to church. I don’t inspire others. I am … inanimate. I am a stone.
Sometimes I feel guilty about this. Sometimes I feel like an inadequate person of faith because I can’t praise. I can’t sing aloud, or even in my heart. I go silent. And I feel bad that I’m not a Palm Sunday Christian.
In those times, I’m just here. I breathe and take care of the most basic parts of life. I try to get more sleep, or keep myself from sleeping all day. Sometimes I take medicine or go to therapy. As others around me celebrate Christmas and Easter and other sacred occasions, I am the proverbial “bump on a log.” I hold on through the hard times because I believe that things will get better again.
It’s taken me years to realize that God loves us stones. Us stones, whom others ignore because we aren’t happy Christians on high holy days. Us stones, who judge ourselves harshly for not being who and what we wish we could be but can’t. Us stones, who still feed the children and get up and go to work even when we feel worthless. Us stones, who neglect the things we love and need. Us stones, who render cries of anguish rather than shouts of joy. Us stones, who survive sleepless nights and suicidal depths.
Jesus saw the rocks that others ignored. In those times when I can’t move, when I am a stone, God is the earth upon which I rest. I believe that Jesus sees my immobile, non-palm-waving, stone life as a testimony.
This is the message of Holy Week. Jesus is here for those who praise him, those who betray him, those who condemn him and those who keep silent. Jesus knows friendship and hunger and pain. Our ability to see the humanity in Jesus is as powerful as God’s calling out the divine from within us. Sometimes it looks like a palm branch. Other times it is a stone.