This article was written by Maggie Talbot, the Parish Secretary of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, and taken from their church newspaper The Angelos. Used by permission.
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows, for there they that carried us away captive required of us a song, and they that tormented us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion! How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget you, oh Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth!”- Psalm 137
To one degree or another, all of us bear the pain of exile. To be human is to be longing for some place else. But for some, it is an extreme longing, and we live like exiles, banished from that other country where we felt whole. We are forever grieving, like the Jews in the early Diaspora, weeping by the waters of Babylon.
“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” They cried, and it is our challenge, too.
We are beyond reason, we who grieve in Babylon. We can only feel, and feeling, weep. That’s the trouble with exile. The heart will accept no comfort, no substitutes. It refuses to forget the place, the person, the time it calls home.
“If I forget you, oh Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth!
So there we sit, crippled and dumb, the torment of memory providing cold comfort. To forget would mean silence, and silence would mean the death of some part of ourselves. Better the misery of exile.
However, there is much in the Gospels about the importance of living in the now, of throwing off the shackles of the past and the uncertainties of the future. St Paul exhorts his flock in 2 Cor. 6:2
“Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation.”
Life can only be lived right now, at this very moment; the past is gone, the future yet to come. Jesus promises us in John 10:10 not only “surviving” life, but thriving life.
“I came that they may have life and that they might have it more abundantly.”
Jesus also wisely said in Matthew 8:22, “Let the dead bury their dead,” which is a hard teaching when our hearts and feeling lead us into exile.
Ultimately we can’t command ourselves to stop feeling, or somehow intellectually neutralize our feelings. Our emotions are too much a part of us. But we must resist the urge to let the deep sorrows and homesickness of our Babylons drive us into the desolation of exile, where even the grace of God is unrecognizable and the voice of God is muffled. Like the Jewish people, we become captives, unable to sing God’s songs.
As Christians we are called to sing God’s songs regardless, or as a friend of mine says “Praise God anyway.” It is one of the most important parts of our witness in the world.
Exile can become bearable only when God’s praise is on our lips. Rather than being the journey’s dismal end, exile becomes one more stopover on a journey where God is the mapmaker- a mapmaker who knows the unique terrain of every heart and can guide us safely through it.
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