I grew up on a sheep farm 40 minutes south of Dunedin. Just north of a little place called Milton. My grandparents, Jean and Andy, my Dad’s folks, owned the farm before us. They lived two paddocks away, in the house Dad had grown up in. They lived two paddocks away and sat one pew in front of us at church. Every Sunday. Most school holidays my cousin Andy came up from Kelso in West Otago and we lived in the loft of the old woolshed behind Granny and Gramps’ place, watching Star Wars and going on secret missions after dark to make sure the neighbours weren’t about to invade.
But now Granny and Gramps are gone, and the place has been empty for more than 10 years. The house has been picked over by family and nature, and some day soon it’ll fall over or be pushed over. Now the sheep farm is a dairy farm, and as of last weekend it isn’t in our family anymore. And Bob Jack’s farm over the road is a prison and John Stewart’s farm over the way has a sawmill on it.
There is a strangeness to the place now.
The house we grew up on, the ancient orchard behind the house, the giant marcrocarpa’s standing guard to the south are all bulldozed into a pile. A pile I struggle to look at. You see, there is a strangeness to this place now. There is so much I don’t recognise, and when I go looking for the real thing, the way it was, I find it isn’t anywhere anymore.
So it was for the Israelites, carried off into exile. Surrounded by strangeness – strange smells, languages, customs, clothes, behaviour. Overwhelming, disorientating. And they are being forced to sing to entertain their captors. ‘Sing us one from your home, you know the one we destroyed.’
How can we sing at a time like this, in a place like this, for people like this? How can we reduce our songs of praise to mere entertainment for the very people who have destroyed our homes and our future. How can we sing as if we were at home and at peace, when we are in this strange place? When our home is not even there to return to anymore?
And yet they did sing. One of the Psalms believed to have been written during this time of disorientation and bewilderment is Psalm 121. Taken away from their homeland, their temple where God was believed to have dwelled. Seeing the temple plundered by a pagan king who walked out unharmed, the Israelites had to seek new ways to understand their connection with God. If God was just in the temple can he still hear us? If, as the Canaanites believe he’s up on the hilltops, can he reach us? If, as the Babylonians believe, he is the Sun and Moon, is this God of ours interested in us or indifferent? At times of crisis, you will find that people’s understanding of God, when shaken will either become tiny and fragile, or enormous and cosmic. See if you can work out what response the Israelites made in this Psalm.
So the Israelites did sing in Babylon, but they didn’t sing the kind of songs their captors wanted from them. Their captors wanted entertainment, a catchy tune, for the Israelites to pawn off their heart and soul language with God in return for scraps from their oppressors table. But there is a strangeness here, and the people of faith cannot pretend things are the same. They will not sing themselves into a stupor. They sing themselves awake, into reality, into the wide world of God’s sovereignty and forbearance. In the face of impossible odds and insurmountable opposition, they sing of a God who is bigger, more abiding and more caring than anyone or anything else they have encountered.
I wonder where the ‘strangeness’ is in your life, or in our life together as a community? Perhaps your community was once settled, and now, like mine, it is in a state of upheaval. What is spoken of as development by some, feels like death to others. Perhaps it is society that has grown strange to you. Perhaps it is the church that seems unfamiliar or foreign to you. Maybe you remember the teaming Sunday Schools and the thriving days of Bible Class. Perhaps you remember the hopefulness of the Ecumenical movement or the excitement of the Charismatic renewal. And now you have lived to see the days of church closures and what is being called, ‘Terminal decline.’
How did we get here? How do we sing songs of joy and triumph when we are confronted with confusion and despair? How can we possibly sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
But there are two ways of reading that question and we actually need both. One leads to the other. The first is a question that arises from despair. How can we sing songs of joy, as if all was well when it clearly isn’t?! This is a vital question, because it highlights that there is something lacking, something inadequate in our lives which we are not willing to merely ignore. In this moment, the Israelites are refusing to participate in those great Presbyterian traditions of ‘making do’ or ‘making the best of it’. They are calling a spade a spade, and the spade is broken. Now to stay with this part of the question exclusively would make us moaners. And while the Psalms feature lots of moaning (telling God how it is when it isn’t great), it doesn’t feature many moaners (ie, people whose being is defined by this way of relating to God). The Psalms give us permission to express our anger, despair, frustration, disappointment with God – but we are always called through these experiences to something else, to another part of the conversation with God. So Psalm 137 is voicing despair, but not as an ending place, but a starting point.
Other versions of the same passage render the question like this:
‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’
Do you hear the difference? Not, ‘How can we…’ but ‘How shall we…’
What difference does that make? When the question is, ‘How can we…’ the emphasis seems to fall on the word, ‘can’ – so we hear, ‘How could we possibly song to God in a place like this?’
But when the question is, ‘How shall we…’ it shifts from, ‘We can’t do this!’ to ‘We must do this, we just don’t know how yet.’
It moves from a declaration of despair to a question of defiant resolve and intent. We don’t know how, but we know we need to find out. The Israelites knew that to forget about their home and the God who gave it to them would make their lives pointless, their existence trivial, their demise irrelevant. We know that we must bring God with us into this strange place, their foreign time. We must find where our God already is in this unfamiliar world. To do this we need to stay in this awkward place, not pretending everything is ok until we find a way to sing to God.
And this Psalm is not about learning to look on the bright side, or become experts at finding the silver lining; waking up one day and saying, ‘You know, this whole exile thing is not so bad!’
This is about truth telling to God in life giving ways, so God can respond with even more truth and everlasting life.
Nor is it simply about music. Music is a metaphor here for our connections with God. How can I sing to God in this weird place, really means
- How can I connect to God?
- How can I know God is there?
- How can I feel God’s presence?
- How can I believe God is with me and for me?
It is that realisation when we wake up to the reality that we aren’t going to find God in the old places anymore, because the temple has been destroyed, or the family farm belongs to someone else now, or the old church isn’t safe to go inside anymore. In response to this a songwriter rises up amongst the Israelites in that place of bewilderment and despair and writes these words:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
It is in the strange land that the greatest songs of homecoming are written. It is when God’s home and our home is destroyed that we are invited to commune with a God who is at home everywhere. It is in these seasons of uncertainty that new streams of the Spirit are discovered, and what we thought was a barren wasteland is revealed as a garden of God’s glory.
How can we find a new song to sing to God in this place, in this time? God is not asking us to put on a brave face. God is not asking us to pretend like we’re not bothered by the way the world is going, by the way the church is going. But God is also not asking us to remain silent, for a silence that springs from despair and confusion can easily become a tomb where our faith can wither and die.
If we feel like we are living in a strange land, God is asking us to sing, to connect, to reach out – even if all we can manage, like the Israelites is to sing, ‘How the heck are we meant to sing in a place like this?
May God in his grace give us an answer to that question.