It’s hard to believe that next year it will have been 10 years since I took a leap of faith and moved myself to Israel, Jerusalem in particular, where I made my home. It was a remarkable year with mostly mountain top experiences but also there were those valleys of the shadow of death experiences where I cried to myself thinking what in the world was I thinking coming to this foreign land?
One of the more difficult times was around Christmas. While my surroundings were becoming familiar to, the predominant ‘religious season’ was not my religious season. Chanukah is beautiful but it wasn’t Advent. Candles all over Jerusalem were lit commemorating the miracle of Chanukah, but wasn’t my miracle. And so I wept and then pulled myself up by the bootstrap.
I knew that I’d have to search to find some familiarity in celebrating Advent and Christmas that year. And so I did.
My advent wreath was not a traditional wreath but a plate of olives leaves that I had plucked from one of the local olive trees. I found a shop that had purple and pink votives and I lit a new candle each week in anticipation of Christ’s birth. My tree was not from Jones Farm; rather it was a small fake one about a foot tall that someone from home had sent me. The ornaments were not my beloved family ornaments but found items: some pottery shards, a pinecone or two, some small bits of Jerusalem stone, and a couple of angels that I had watercolored.
And it was fine, in fact it was beautiful and I found friends at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land to observe Advent and celebrate Christmas. While I was not in exile I sure felt alone and, at times confused and in despair. How I longed to be home with my kids, my dog, and my friends.
Ancient Israel was a worshipping community and the Psalms are the heart and soul of the Hebrew Bible. They are addressed to God and are prayers that come from deep within a people who suffered greatly. We are looking at Psalm 137 today. Kathryn Huey notes, This particular Psalm isn't just one of the "difficult parts" of the Bible, it "may well be president of the club,"[i]
The collection of Psalms is beautiful in that they connect us to raw human sentiment and passion and were written approximately 6 centuries before Christ. Every emotion that we can possibly have is expressed in poetic form allowing the reader to empathize. The Psalm for reflection today is a lamentation of despair, of remembrance and, of revenge or justice.
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?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
What sounds like longing turns horribly grotesque at the end, right? Let’s have a look at what is going on. In Psalm 137 the Psalmist laments over the destruction of Jerusalem, he mourns because the people of Israel have now, tragically, been exiled to Babylon. And their captors are bullies who tauntingly ask them to sing one of “those songs” of Zion.
But they couldn’t. It’s just not the same. All meaning has been removed from their song and nothing resonates with them. How in the world are they to remain a covenant people while they are geographically isolated in a political empire where they have absolutely no authority? They are angry. All they can do is hang up their harps on the willow tree branches, lament, and weep. They aren’t in their familiar surroundings, so why bother? They ask, “how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
Some of the most beautiful and compelling music arises out of our deepest pain. African American Spirituals like "Steal Away", or "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" lifted up unexpectedly in a cotton field, or sung softly in the dark of night, signaled that the coast was clear and the time to escape had come – their freedom from slavery bondage was near. They sang about their pain, their struggle, their loss but they did not give up hope.
Israel, through this Psalm, lodged their complaint against their captors and their lament dared to say how overwhelming their loss was. Their disturbing prayer for revenge is Israel’s brutal honesty and it is shocking; it’s not at all emotionally contained or discreet.
Haven’t we all, at some point in our lives, wished some sort of revenge or upcommance on someone or something if even in the smallest of ways? “I hope she gets what’s coming to her” or “Maybe he’ll get what he deserves” are common phrases when we have been wronged. It’s a plea for justice but it doesn’t make it ok to threaten someone or to enact harm upon another person. What is ok is to acknowledge the hurt and the anger and do something positive with it.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, assures us, "Humans, as Israel knows, do indeed thirst for vengeance, and that thirst is itself never censured. The theological question is how to manage that thirst. One may act out the thirst, deny it, or cede it to YHWH in prayer." So Israel cedes it to God in prayer. How incredibly therapeutic these words must have been for them, their wish for vengeance is their cry for justice and it is expressed. Now they can readjust and live once again.
Cursing and ranting is juxtaposed against longing as they work through their grief towards restoration and wholeness. Unless they examine their loss newness will not come. With this text of lamentation we too are given permission to grieve and pour out our heart at injustice and our longing for things to be made better. We can put it all in God’s hands, which is what the Israelites do, trusting that God will look after things in a fair and equitable way.
You know tough times present us with many choices. We can wallow in our despair or grow spiritually from the experience. We can give up or give in and stagnate in the present reality or we can take one ten-pound footstep in front of the other eventually walking towards the light. You cannot get through your grief, or your pain, or your suffering, or your fear, or your anger by just snapping your fingers and thinking it’ll all go away and be fine in the morning. It doesn’t work that way. It’s hard soul searching work.
Our country is a mess right now. There are plenty of things that are making me fearful and angry. The campaign process is a horrible example of just how mean spirited people can be. Arrogance and unbridled prejudice I have never seen the likes of. While I thought that the Civil Rights act helped reign in racial injustice, apparently I was wrong. I am fearful of the future that our children will have to encounter. What kind of life will it be for these little ones? How can I handle my outrage?
Well like the Psalmist I can let it all hang out before God. God can take the straight talk from me. The first step in healing is to acknowledge your fears and pain and to let it out. Transformation begins by releasing and giving voice to the inner demons in your head. It may seem like a dark place to be but in the darkness there will come a glimmer of light and hope.
At the White River Junction VA there is an innovative program wherein cartoonists from the Center for Cartoon Studies and Vets come together and the Vet tells his or her narrative of pain and moral injury. The cartoonist records it in cartoon form. While the process is painful, the healing is transformative for both the Vet and the cartoonist.
When we can’t sing in our own land and in our own way, we are provided a different tune. That is the gift of God’s love. Israel emerged strong and loyal. God did not fail them in their captivity and herein lies our hope too.