German artist Eduard Julius Friedrich Bendemann (1811-1889)
"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion. ... How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?" (From Psalm 137, from original HebrewThe Writings - Kethubim, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1982. (The Writings is the third and final major section of this translation-to-English effort. The Torah was published in 1962, and The Prophets in 1978.)
For several years I taught an adult Sunday School class at our American Baptist church when we lived in Wyoming. I didn't use any standard curriculum, but selected topics of interest to me and folks in the class. Topics always had a spiritual and religious background, and were designed so we could delve into the nature of God in our ordinary lives. "On Death and Dying," was a popular one, which used much of the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. We studied the world's great religions and the denominations within Christianity -- focusing on understanding rather than comparing or judging. "Writing the Positive Ten Commandments" was an interesting and challenging one in which we tried to answer the question "IF we shalt not, then what is it we shalt do?"
A lesson we did a number of times over the years was based on Psalm 137, "How Do I Sing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land?" It was one that required introspection — sometimes painful — and examination of our relationship with God. I thought I'd share the gist of it as a Reflection here at the beginning a new year. In looking back and ahead, many of us may find ourselves living in a Strange Land.
This Reflection won't be helpful, however, if you simply read it as text. It involves a series of questions to consider, think about, and answer. It is meant to provoke serious thought. Please take your time with this. Maybe even discuss some of the questions with a friend.
But first I'll quote the portion of Psalm 137 that is the basis of this exercise. (If you read the whole psalm, you'll see why I didn't use the last few verses. Although today, I do have some thoughts, at the time I had no idea what to do with the latter verses.) The context for this psalm is important. It was written during the Babylonian Captivity brought about by the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Not only were the Jews captives and in a foreign land, but their dire situation was compounded by the fact that they were far away from Jerusalem. At that point in Hebrew history, it was thought that God's dwelling place was Jerusalem, in the temple. They did not view God as universal in the way we view God to be. So, their sadness was exacerbated by their sense that they were without their God.
"By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!' How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?" (Verses 1-4 NIV.)
1. At this New Years' Time of the Year, What Strange or Alien Land Do You Find Yourself In?
Perhaps your strange land is literally an alien land. Maybe you've moved to a new part of the country, or not far but to a new community. An older person may find themselves in a new environment such as a retirement home.
Perhaps your strange land is not physical, but more situational. The death of a spouse or loved one can certainly make one feel as if they are living in an alien and strange land — a very strange and confusing land. A serious change in health is another strange land many experience. The word 'Cancer' can immediately transport a person and family to an alien land. Simply facing the fact that one has become advanced in age can feel like a very alien land.
Not all strange lands are negative in nature. Even something very positive, such as a major promotion at work (along with a significant pay raise) may feel strange with unknown challenges: "Am I in over my head?" ... "Will my friends view me differently now?"
What is the Strange Land where you might be finding yourself?
2. What is the Lord's Song You Always Want to Sing?
(Here, 'Song' and 'Singing' aren't necessarily literal. 'Song' may also be a joy or an emotion; a feeling you want to have.)
Perhaps you always want to sing of your awareness of God's love for you; your sense that God always does hold your hand. You want to sing that no matter what the world may bring, you trust that God is in change, that "He Has the Whole World in His Hands."
Maybe the song I hope to always sing is not so much a song of the Lord, but that which God provides. I may always want to sing of the bonds of spouse, family, and dear friends. I may want to sing of the love for my country, my pride in what it stands for.
What is the Lord's Song you want to keep singing ... even in your strange, new land?
3. But like those captive Hebrews, away from their God, asked: "How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?" ... In Your Strange Land, Do You Feel Like You Can Sing Your Song?
(Perhaps your reasons for no longer able to sing might be similar to one of these:) I'd like to sing that God always holds my hand. But, I'm angry that cancer took the love of my life. I don't even want to reach out for God's hand, let alone hold it!
I've always loved to sing the Lord's song together with my close friends. But, now, I'm in this place without those friends. I don't even feel up to trying to make new friends to sing with.
I'm so busy in my new job that I don't feel like I have time to even sing a short song!
I have trouble singing with any conviction that, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands!"
I no longer have the passion to sing of love of my country as I used to have.
Can you still sing your Lord's Song now in your strange land? If not, what is it that keeps you from singing the song you want to sing?
4. But, you really want to continue singing the Lord's Song. What Is It You Think You Need to Again Sing, Even In Your Strange Land?
What do I need from God to allow me to sing even in this strange land? "I'm here, God, in this strange land. You probably aren't going to remove my strange land. But, here is what I DO need from you so I can sing again." Be specific.
What is it I need from the others around me so I can sing again? Perhaps, "I know you are my friend. I need you to give me space and time to grieve. I can't be fixed as soon as some would like. Don't even know whether I need fixing." Maybe I need to take that difficult step to try to make new friends, even one, in my new, strange land.
Maybe what I need to be able to sing again is a new song; or a new instrument as accompaniment. Perhaps there is another song I should try to sing. "God, teach me a new song!"
What is it you need from God, from others, from yourself to be able to sing again ... sing in your strange land?
Change is probably the one constant in our lives. Few things stay as they are. Sometime we are the ones causing a change; other changes are brought on us. Some changes are welcome and we feel like celebrating. Other changes are not welcome or understood. These latter changes can make us feel as if we are in a strange or alien land.
Coping in strange lands and recognizing God's presence to help us can be difficult and made more so if we never come to grips with the changes, never really identifying the feelings that may haunt us. I hope working through this Reflection may be of some help. I'd encourage you to work through it with someone else or in a small group. In sharing, we often find that we aren't the only ones in a strange land. That in itself can be comforting and helpful. Maybe someone else wants to again sing a Song of the Lord. Maybe you can sing together.
"By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!'"