From the Book of Psalms:
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?
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 137:1-4 – August 24, 2012)
This is one of my favorite psalms, not so much for its own import, but because of the reggae song Rivers of Babylon which is based on it. Here’s a YouTube recording of the Melodians singing the song. (My favorite version is a live performance by Jimmy Cliff, but I couldn’t find a good video of it.)
It is the plaint of the refugee: how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? How can we do anything that is normal to us? How can we be the people we are meant to be in a context not our own?
This is the life of the Christian according to St. Paul! We who are members of the Body of Christ are not in our “native land”; we are not at home in this world. To the Philippians he wrote, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philip. 3:20) And to the Ephesians, “You are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph. 2:19)
This is difficult for us to accept. We like to think that the context in which we find ourselves, our worldly situation, is where we are supposed to be! I was born and reared in the United States of America; I was educated in its schools, worked in its industry, worship in its churches, vote in its elections. I am an American! And yet Paul and Psalm 137 insist that I am a “stranger in a strange land”, that I am a citizen of somewhere else, that my values are not necessarily those of the world and the society in which I find myself, leaving me with the question asked in the Psalm: How can I sing the Lord’s song in this foreign land? How can I apply the values of the gospel in my daily life in this place-other-than-heaven? How do those values influence the way I vote, the choices I make, the activities i do, the way I spend money?
And let’s be honest and take a step back to an earlier question . . . . Do gospel values influence my daily life, my vote, my choices, my activities? Or have I hung up my harp on the willows and given up trying to sing God’s song in this strange place? I hope that I have not, and I hope over the next several weeks to tune my harp and take it with me into the voting booth in November.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.