“By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”
(I wonder if you’re singing the song in your head as you read it too?)
Several conversations recently have focused on the theme of exile. Right from the outset, I want to declare that I have not experienced the devastation of exile — I have not been forcibly removed from my home or country, nor have I been forced to separate from people and places that give me a sense belonging and identity. On a small scale, although it felt large enough to me at the time, I have experienced being rejected by my childhood peers, and recall the loss of identity and “place” that accompanied the hurtful things my fellow schoolmates inflicted. And I have an active imagination.
Especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, that which we call the Old Testament, there are numerous stories of people in exile. Through the lens of faith, these stories are usually interpreted as God’s punishment on a people who refused to honour the covenant God made with them. As they continued to live in a manner that rejected God and the way God called them to live, they blinded themselves to the consequences of the choices they were making. Neither did they heed the warning of the prophets, and so they were not able to avert the disaster that headed toward them. Foreign armies invaded their land, took them captive and led them away into exile.
For the people of Israel, to be separated from the land they understood was their inheritance through the promise God gave to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was unthinkable. The loss was not just material (homes, jobs, possessions), it was also spiritual. The lament in Psalm 137 is “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Away from the land promised to their ancestors, away from the temple that was built by Solomon as a house for God, they believed they were separated from God — how could God be with them in Babylon, or anywhere else, when God lived in the temple in Jerusalem? Yet there were prophets with the people in exile who reminded them that God was with them, that God would not leave them.
For some people, this global pandemic and the response the Australian government has made through lockdown and physical restrictions has felt like a form of exile. We have not been allowed to gather together again until very recently, and our congregations have been scattered. It has felt strange, alien, and perhaps unlike worship that we have ever experienced before. Some people have expressed that it has been difficult to worship at all — how do we find God in community when we are isolated in our own homes and watching a screen? How do we be the Church when we are separated from each other? I have heard many lament that it doesn’t feel like Church, or worship, at all when we cannot be with one another in our buildings amongst the familiar patterns and rituals.
I have struggled with this lament. In part because it is my own lament. I have felt alienated from that community (the Church in general as well as the congregation with whom I am currently a member) that has nurtured and held me for my whole life. But there is a deeper struggle — one that was named for me a few months ago by our Moderator, Simon. Psalm 137 holds the lament of the Israelites in exile in verse 4: “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Simon reminded me through something he said or wrote that the focus of this verse was singing the Lord’s song, not their own song, in a foreign land. This wasn’t about the Israelites finding voice to sing about their troubles, it was the need to realise that God was with them even in exile and then finding a way to sing God’s song of joy and love and welcome and hope in the foreign land.
As things continue to slowly open up for us and restrictions begin to ease, with the temptation to “return to normal’ creeping in and nestling next to our hearts, I hope and pray that we will continue to find ways to sing the Lord’s song in the “foreign land” before us. May we seek less to reinvent what we were comfortable (and comforted) with before this season, and seek more to discover the new thing God is doing wherever we are and in whatever ways open before us… and may we put ourselves alongside God and join in the holy work. Indeed, may we be more and more —
Drawn by the future not driven by the past.
Blessings and peace,