By: Tori Smit
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
Psalm 137:1-4 (NRSV)
One of the things I often do with congregations is to invite them to locate themselves scripturally. By this I mean that I ask them to try to name the Bible story in which they are currently living, in the expectation that God’s Word will help them see a way forward.
Not surprisingly, one of the most persistent stories identified is the story of the Exodus. This is a great story of rescue and promise for the people of Israel. But it’s also a story that involves a rather long period of travelling in the wilderness. It’s a story churches can identify with because they feel they are “in the wilderness,” between here and there, a familiar past and a promised future, depending on the grace and provision of God as they move forward together.
While I understand the power of this story, I am concerned that as we apply it to our current reality there is an underlying assumption that at the end of this dusty, dry spell God will bring us into a land flowing with milk and honey. We just need to sit tight and wait. Here in Canada over the past fifty years, the church has diminished in almost every respect. This change is mirrored in many of the churches of Europe and the United States to a greater or lesser degree.
All of this leads me to wonder whether a better story is the story of the Babylonian exile. You will recall that while this exile involved the utter destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, most significantly it involved the transporting of the people, not to slavery, but to a new land, a land where they could continue doing exactly what they had done before. In other words, if you were a doctor in Judah, you could be a doctor in Babylon; if you were a lawyer, same thing. The ramifications of this are huge–a people doing the same thing in a whole new world. Sounds like the church’s present experience, doesn’t it?
The opening verses of Psalm 137 describe the Babylonian exile perfectly. “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” My sense is that this is the experience of many of us and many of our churches. We remember. We remember an easier time, a simpler time, a time when our churches were fuller and it all just made a little more sense. It is not the purpose of this reflection to go into all the reasons for this change; for the most part, it is due to events and conditions far beyond our control. And as with many things, it is not what happens to us but how we respond that matters. In this context, it is worth asking the question of the psalm: “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
This is a key question, both then and now. How do we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? How do we continue to be faithful and indeed joyful and helpful in a whole new world? In looking for an answer the first thing we have to understand is that, like the Israelites, we are genuinely in a new land. This is uncharted territory and, while it is important that we grieve what we had, we cannot go back. (Note: every metaphor has its limits. While the people of Israel did eventually go back, what they found was nothing like what they had left.) The second realization is that we can indeed sing the Lord’s song, for the Lord is as present now as ever.
In his book Old Testament Theology, Walter Brueggemann notes that even though the actual number of people exiled was relatively modest, the exile became the governing paradigm for all successive Jewish faith. Further, he points out that, “The experience and paradigmatic power of the exile evoked in Israel a surge of theological reflection and a remarkable production of fresh theological literature (Brueggemann’s emphasis). The exile decisively shattered the old settled categories of Israel’s faith. It did not however lead to abandonment of faith or despair. . . . The characteristic tension between acknowledgement of shattering on the one hand, and the refusal of despair and abandonment on the other hand, required, permitted, and authorized in Israel daring theological energy that began to probe faith in wholly new categories” (p. 185).
In other words, this whole new land, this whole new landscape, may just be more critical to our faith and witness than we ever thought possible.
It is impossible to predict what tomorrow will bring. The world has changed, is changing, and will likely change again before you read this article. But we do know this: The one who created time and change is faithful and, even as we listen and follow, the Lord will lead.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Psalm 137:5, 6 (NRSV)
Tori Smit is a diaconal minister with the Presbyterian Church in Canada serving as the Christian education consultant for the Synod of Central, Northeastern Ontario and Bermuda (CNOB). She has written curriculum for the PCC, Montreat Conference Center and Kerygma Bible Studies.