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Singing the Lord’s song in a strange land

Harp at Christmastime

Sometimes we feel like a spiritual refugee, a stranger in a strange land, and do not know what to do. Sondra Willobee points to Psalm 137 as a perfect song for whatever kind of dislocation we find ourselves in.

Retired Pastor, Michigan Conference

“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. . . . How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1, 4, NRSV).

Some saw it coming a while ago and quietly left the congregations where they’d been members for many years. Others stayed on, hoping to influence the churches they loved. Still, others were loath to leave because of buildings they had helped raise or ashes they had placed in memorial gardens under the trees.

But now that the vote has been taken, they are on the move.

Transitions in church membership happen all the time, of course, and for many reasons. People often leave churches because they are angry—at the pastor or other members. Church fights can be bitter. Underneath the anger may be a disappointed longing for care. One of my mentors once told me, “The church makes a lousy mother.”

People also leave churches because their personal circumstances have changed. Empty nesters who had joined churches “for the children” may wonder why they are attending worship services that now, like their houses, feel strangely quiet. Job changes, illness, or aging may send people into different communities where they must find a new faith home.

Some people leave a particular congregation because their beliefs no longer fit with the doctrines or practices they hear from the pulpit or other members. Sometimes it seems like the congregation changed around them, and they feel lost in a space that used to feel familiar and safe. The schism in The United Methodist Church over LGBTQ inclusion has created a larger-than-usual migration of spiritual refugees.

When old certainties crumble, you can feel like a spiritual refugee without going anywhere at all. For many of us, the past two years have felt like a strange land.

Whatever the reason for the dislocation, spiritual refugees may find some consolation in the words of Psalm 137, which expresses a complex blend of sorrow, nostalgia, anger, and grief.

“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Psalm 137 asks. This haunting psalm of lament remembers the time of the exile when Israelites had been taken to Babylon as captives of war. The Babylonians taunted them, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” The taunt was especially cruel since some of those songs were nationalistic hymns expressing Israel’s confidence that the Lord of hosts would give them victory in battle. That had not happened. The Babylonians and their allies, the Edomites, had sacked and pillaged Jerusalem, tearing down its walls. Was the God of Israel weaker than Marduk, the chief deity of Babylon and patron of its kings? Had God abandoned them? They hung their lyres on the branches of the willow trees rather than sing.

As a pastor who has experienced dislocation, grieving the loss of four different churches in turn, I empathize with the fierce nostalgia in verse five: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!” The people of Israel were determined to remember the place where their God had reigned supreme—the palace and the temple courts of Jerusalem. Sometimes, during a worship service in a new congregation, I would find myself choking back tears for the people and the place I just had left.

Sometimes, too, I would long for a time in the past. “Remember when the pews were full to bursting?” the voice of nostalgia says. “Remember when we knew everyone in the room? Remember when so many children came up front for the children’s message that the floorboards of the sanctuary thundered under their feet?”

Now I sit in a strange place among people I do not know.

How do we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

We may not want to read to the end of Psalm 137. Verses eight and nine are so terrible that they are often omitted in public readings: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! . . . Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” The raw anger in these final verses is human and real.

I’m amazed that such vengeful sentiments are included in scripture. That inclusion suggests that God is not interested in pious platitudes; God wants us to express our true feelings. (God knows them anyway.) Rather than telling spiritual refugees, “Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way,” Psalm 137 gives us a place to vent—sorrow or rage or whatever—over all that we have lost.

So, how do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Psalm 137 shows us:

    1. We acknowledge our complex feelings.
    2. We name what we have lost.
    3. We honor what we have received from our former spiritual home.
    4. We allow ourselves a season of grief, hanging up our lyres for a time while we find our way.
    5. We trust that God will send help.

The final affirmation in this list is only implied by the psalm. It points forward to a different time in Israel’s history, centuries after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple. Though a different oppressor, the Roman Empire, occupied the land of Israel now, a man and a woman brought their baby to the temple to be circumcised. They gave him the name “Jesus,” which means “Yahweh will save.” In this way, Joseph and Mary expressed their faith that God had not abandoned them but was already acting to help them and their people. Their son would also be called “The Root of Jesse,” the messianic king foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1, see also Romans 15:12). From this child new life would spring forth; the New Israel, a new community of faith, would grow.

At the end of the movie Fiddler on the Roof, Jews in the village of Anatevka become targets of a Russian pogrom and are told they must leave. Packing their meager belongings into wagons and pushcarts, they sing: “Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place, hoping for an old familiar face—from Anatevka.” One of the young men says to the rabbi, “We’ve been waiting all our lives for the Messiah. Wouldn’t this be a good time for him to come?” The rabbi replies, “We’ll have to wait for him someplace else.”

During the season of Advent, we, too, wait for the Messiah. Advent is a liturgical season tailor-made for spiritual refugees, a time between now and not yet, a time full of memory, sorrow, heightened longing, and hope. While we wait, it is good to remember that the Messiah is not bound to any particular place. Nor does any group of Christians own him—no denomination, no nation, no secular or spiritual empire. His love is just too big. His arms are far too wide.

So, with all the company of the faithful, we move forward bit by bit as the next steps are given to us, waiting and hoping, trusting in God’s care. Picking up our harps once again, we sing the songs of Advent: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel . . . . O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree, an ensign of thy people be.” With these songs, we join the signature plea of the earliest Christians who yet raise their voices with the heavenly chorus: Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus, come (see 1 Corinthians 16:22).

The Rev. Sondra Willobee is a retired elder, last serving as lead pastor at South Lyon: First UMC. She wrote articles for The Michigan Christian Advocate, FaithLink, and Linktionary, and is the author of The Write Stuff: Crafting Sermons That Capture and Convince (2009). You can also read her blog, www.sondrawillobee.com/blog.

Last Updated on October 31, 2023

The Michigan Conference