Music for Monkeys

music for monkeys

They gave up trying to teach a monkey to type the next Shakespeare play. But since music supposedly calms the savage, they taught him to play a tiny guitar instead. It made sense after all – he could play tunes to calm himself down, rather than a researcher having to do it. Once he had access to the guitar and finally understood that it was for making music and not for hitting people or other monkeys over the head, he calmed down dramatically. Just being able to express himself had the desired effect.

They’d tried to teach Abe how to sign but he wasn’t having it. It didn’t make sense to him – this gesture meant what? It was too abstract for him. Why make a sign with his hand, when he could grunt or scream at them? They eventually figured out what he wanted. Meanwhile, he enjoyed screaming. It was fun and made his keepers (his jailers) so anxious. It was funny to watch, to see how he could make them so upset and nervous.

But then they brought the guitar to him. The jailer played it at first and the tones were different, weren’t like their voices. The jailer even sang – and his voice was different, was kinder. If only they could always speak to him like that!

Abe thought  that maybe they could learn how to talk with music, so these dimwits could finally get him what he wanted faster. The amusement of their confusion was wearing off. He wanted to deal with them as little as possible. Even fighting was getting old.

Finally, after nearly a year of practice, he was ready for his first public performance. He was no longer in his cage – the audience would be shocked to think of how he been imprisoned. Most thought of it as a zoo, and either forgot or overlooked the fact that he didn’t choose to be there. He wasn’t asked when he was taken from his home. It wasn’t voluntary. He didn’t want to be an example of his kind.

Many thought of the zoo as an educational opportunity, a chance for people to learn about animals in a safe and clean environment. They also thought they were doing the animals a favor. The same “safe and clean environment” was so much better than a wilderness home, the people told themselves. They pointed out how the animals lived so much longer in captivity. They didn’t understand that quantity wasn’t the same as quality. Longer wasn’t necessarily better.

Abe was supposed to play a nursery song, one that was easy and would show off his talents. Nothing too complicated or he’d fumble and the audience would stare or laugh. It was important to get this right.

The audience wasn’t just any old audience. They were benefactors, donors, patrons of the arts. It was their generosity that made the “Music for Monkeys” program possible. If this failed, the whole program would end. It was all riding on Abe, but he had not been told this.

Yet he played better than expected, and more. He played flawlessly, with real feeling, for the first 20 minutes. Perhaps something took over then, some deep down part of him, because that feeling came up and out and over and suddenly he was playing a new song, a sad song. A song sadder than standing on the platform as the last train leaves for the evening. A song sadder than the end of summer break. A song so sad that the audience caught the feeling tied up inside it without words, and they understood the pain of imprisonment in the name of “education” or “rescue”. They heard within the notes his longing for a home he would never see again, a family he would never again embrace. It didn’t matter if they might no longer be alive because of disease or poachers. They had lived as monkeys, not as exhibits, as specimens, as one-off examples of their kind, meant to be on display to any and all, young and old, as the epitome of “monkey” to these rubes, these ticket holding members of this permanent circus that is a zoo (sometimes euphemistically termed a “wildlife park” for much the same reason cemeteries are now memorial gardens).

The audience felt through Abe’s new music the joy of waking up with the sunrise, embraced by the arms of a tree, with leaves as a blanket. It felt the joy of wandering every day to see new places and other animals, every night a new bed in a new tree. Every day was the first day for Abe’s kind – a new adventure and excuse to discover. No worries about a car or mortgage or clothes, so no worries about a job or reputation either.

The people thought they were safe because of all they owned but now they understood that it owned them. They had become chained themselves, slowly, but surely. They had put themselves into a zoo of their own making. They had forgotten their own wildness, their own true nature, in their striving to be civilized. Abe, with his monkey music, reminded them of who they really were, and who they could become again.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. When the music finally stopped, when the guitar strings stilled, they all sat in silence for what seemed like forever. Finally a child spoke, and asked Abe what his real name was, the one before his capture. What was the sound his family, blood and otherwise, called him? And he didn’t know. It was lost to him, trained out of him for so many years. So the child gave him a new name, a snippet of that song that awoke them all, as a reminder of who he truly was.

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Mental slavery

“It is a curious but little known fact that the Israelites enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years never once asked to go free. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible do they say to Pharaoh or Moses or God, ‘Get us out of here!’ All they say, and they say it a lot, and in a lot of different ways, is: Life is hard: we don’t like it.
This may explain why God had to put on such a big show with all those miracles and plagues. If God had simply wanted them free, God could have just made them free. But that wouldn’t have been enough. The slaves themselves had to want to go free. Only by watching all those great signs and portents might they, little by little, begin to realize for themselves that there was a power in the universe even greater than Pharaoh, a power dedicated to freeing slaves.
What had to be broken was not Pharaoh’s will, but the dullness of their own routine, the comfortable reliability of putting up with things the way they were.”

– From “Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the Ordinary” by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.

How many of us are stuck in the same place, day by day, year by year – a whole lifetime of thinking that things aren’t good enough? We get by, muddle through, but deep down we are miserable. Deep down, we want to be free but we aren’t brave enough to ask for it. Maybe we don’t think we deserve to be free. Maybe we think we are stuck in this room and the only way out is the one way door of death. So we wait for it to come to us, or we rush towards it. We stay in that room not even really alive.

We don’t call out – we don’t ask for help. What we see is what we get.

After Isaac is born, things don’t go well between Hagar and Sarah. She asks Abraham, her husband and the father of both boys, to send Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. This is certain death. He doesn’t want to do it, but God assures him that things will go well. God says nothing to Hagar at this point.

Genesis 21:14-21 (HCSB)

14 Early in the morning Abraham got up, took bread and a waterskin, put them on Hagar’s shoulders, and sent her and the boy away. She left and wandered in the Wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she left the boy under one of the bushes.16 Then she went and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she said, “I can’t bear to watch the boy die!” So as she sat nearby, she wept loudly. 17 God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What’s wrong, Hagar? Don’t be afraid, for God has heard the voice of the boy from the place where he is. 18 Get up, help the boy up, and support him, for I will make him a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the waterskin and gave the boy a drink. 20 God was with the boy, and he grew; he settled in the wilderness and became an archer. 21 He settled in the Wilderness of Paran, and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

God heard their cries and answered – and “opened her eyes” (see verse 19) to see a well of water in the desert. This isn’t a spring coming out of a rock. This isn’t a miracle of water in the desert that didn’t exist until just that very moment. This is a normal, everyday well that Hagar didn’t notice until God opened her eyes.

There are wells near you all the time. You just can’t see them, because you don’t ask to see them.

They say that alcoholics and drug addicts won’t benefit from treatment until they get so far down that they ask for help. This seems cruel – we don’t ask people having heart attacks if they want to go to the hospital. We just call an ambulance.

So what is the difference? We have to want to be free – but first we have to know that we are enslaved.

The best part? We have a loving Father who is ready to help us, as soon as we ask.

The Burning Bush

Let’s look at the story of Moses and the burning bush.

Exodus 3:1-10

Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the back of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, unto Horeb. 2 And the angel of Jehovah appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. 4 And when Jehovah saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. 5 And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. 6 Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God. 7 And Jehovah said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people that are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; 8 and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite. 9 And now, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: moreover I have seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them. 10 Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.
(American Standard Version)

Notice that Moses was simply walking along. This amazing sight just happened, unexpectedly. Notice that God only started speaking to Moses when he turned aside to look at it. From that encounter, Moses is called to lead Israel out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom.

How many burning bushes are in your life? How many places where God is are you ignoring? We have to stop and slow down and take time to notice where God is breaking through into this world. We have to make space and time for God, otherwise we’ll miss our call. Is God in the sound of the siren of the firetruck racing by? Is God in the cry of the small child wanting to be held? Is God the still small voice in the storm? God is in all of that and much more. There are many amazing things small and large that happen all around us all the time. It is only when we turn aside and give attention to them that God will then speak to us.

God doesn’t always appear to us as an angel. Sometimes God comes in dreams. Sometimes God appears as three strangers such as happened with Abraham in Genesis 18.

We have to slow down and treat everyone as if they might be an angel in disguise. In Greece, they always make sure to have sweets available because they don’t know if the person who shows up at their door is God. I’m not saying that everyone is holy. But I am saying that everyone has the possibility of having God within them. And I’m saying that our world would be a nicer place if we treated every single person with that level of love and attention.

God is always willing to reach to us and talk to us. We just have to stop and take the time to notice. Imagine what would’ve happened if Moses had not taken the time to stop and slow down. The Israelites would still be stuck in slavery. God called Moses from the burning bush to set people free. It was only when he turned aside that God spoke. He could have kept on walking. How many times do we keep on walking?

How many other releases from slavery are we missing out on because we don’t believe that we are being called by God? Notice that God didn’t free the Israelites on his own. He required Moses. He required Moses’ full participation. God uses all of us like that.

Is God calling you? Do you think you’re not special enough? Moses wasn’t special. He was an average person at an average time and in an average place before God called him. He became special because he said Yes to God. It was only after he said Yes and he started working with God that he became special.

You’re being called right now from the burning bush. Stop. Turn aside. Pay attention. God is calling you to free people from the slavery of guilt and shame and from playing small. God is calling you from within the slavery of fear and doubt and addictions. God is calling you.

Say Yes.

Just like Moses, you can do it, with God’s help.

Together, you can lead people out of pain and into life.