Monday, July 27, 2009

the blues (psalm 137)

We begin with a question: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” As a pastor I share conversations with a variety of folks in the course of a month, a week or even a day. I think of a man who is aging, who has lived his entire life in this community. He senses a strong connection to this church, even if he cannot be here on Sunday mornings. As we talk the conversation turns toward experiences of loss and change. Loss of a spouse, loss of health, loss of occupation and a community that has changed and grown around us. He is not asking the question in so many words, but he is wondering nevertheless: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

I think about a young woman, newer to our congregation and community. As I get to know her I realize that home is really somewhere else. She talks about a separation and forming a new family some distance from home, and not according to the plan that had been mapped out. Loss of friends and the familiar, loss of work in another city, and support systems that had been in place. She also, was asking the question: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

On the surface two very different people, but sharing a common experience. They are in the wrong place, or a strange place, or they are disoriented, they are not sure this is their true home, they long for some place in the past. There is a kind of sadness about that. The 137th Psalm reminds us that we can be honest before God. Sometimes it is difficult to sing, or to feel spiritual, or to make sense of it all. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”, the Israelites asked their captors. The Psalm can be easily placed in a historical context, we know that it was written between 587 and 539 bc, or very shortly after, when the pain and humiliation of exile, following the destruction of the Temple, was fresh on Israel’s mind.

What was exile like? Imagine someone moving into our community, sending some of our children south and some of them north. Some of us are killed, the enemies claim our houses as their own, they take control of this house of worship by substituting another god for the One we worship. They take most of us captive, to another place, a place where all that we have learned and accomplished means nothing. We are simply there to do hard labor. We are not very happy about what has happened to family, home, church, nation, and we are wondering: where is God in all of this? And then one of the guards, set in authority over us, says, with tongue in cheek,

Remind me again about just how powerful, wonderful, awesome your God really is? Sing us one of those songs of Zion? What do you do? You mutter, under your breath, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Because sometimes it is hard to sing. The words get stuck in the roof of your mouth, like peanut butter on a piece of dry bread. You can remember the glorious descant that soared into the rafters of the temple, but that was then and this is now.

Maybe you are here this morning and you are feeling dislocated, disorientated, like you’re living in some kind of strange land. The ground has shifted beneath your feet, and every expectation you had about the future has been called into question---the job was not all it was advertised to be; the promises were broken; you wonder if the dream will really come true.

How can we sing? We can sing the Lord’s song as long as we remember that we do not sing it alone. In the past few years I have watched people sing during the memorial services in our church. The family often chooses the hymns---they almost always want joyous hymns of faith and assurance. These are difficult to sing, and yet, no one sings them alone. Because someone is there who will sing for the family, until the time comes again when they can voice these words.

How can we sing the Lord’s song in the strange land of Alzheimer’s and Autism, downsizing and depression, loneliness and loss? It helps to know that we do not sing the Lord’s song alone. And that is important, because the Lord’s song is the connection to our memory.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.

In exile, in a strange land, it is essential that we remember the music.

I have always loved music. As a teenager I listen to music for hours and hours in my room. You can turn that down”, my parents would say to me. For those of you who are parenting teenagers now, you can give thanks to God for the IPOD! My speakers would rattle the house, and my parents were infinitely patient, I guess! Over time I had a tall stack of eight track tapes---I am dating myself here, and then these were replaced by albums that I collected. Through the years I weeded through most of these albums, but some I kept. And then, of course, albums were replaced by compact discs, just as albums had replaced eight track tapes, just as cds are now being replaced by mp3 files. It had been a long time since I had listened to those albums, but we moved them with us, from place to place.

One fall we were getting ready for a yard sale. I was going through a bunch of old stuff and I came across two turntables. On one the arm that played the record had been damaged somehow; on the other the needle no longer worked. Put a price on it,” my wife said, and move on. I began to do that and then an idea came to me: could I take the needle from this turntable and place it on the undamaged arm of the other? I did. It worked. And there was music.

I began to listen to the music, and I thought of people, places, family, birthdays and Christmas mornings, and immediately I was right back there. We are called to remember the song, to keep the music alive. Do this, Jesus said, in remembrance of me. The good news, of course, is that Israel learned, if they remembered the song, they could sing it wherever they were. As long as they could remember the words God was alive for them, not just in memory but in the present. Their struggle was God’s struggle, their weeping was God’s weeping.

The exile was a difficult time in Israel’s history, and, of course, we pass through our own times of destruction and self-destruction. Maybe you have had a child, or a friend, or the experience yourself of destruction and self-destruction, you are not really where you want to be, not to mention where God wants you to be. But there you were, there you are.

God’s desire for Israel was not exile. And God did not abandon them in the exile, even as God does not abandon us in our loss. God gave them a song. Sometimes the song is celebration and praise. Sometimes the song is the blues. Much of the music I listened to as an adolescent would be categorized as the blues. The blues is the indigenous music of the deep south, growing out of our own experience of destruction and self-destruction, the dehumanization of racism, the devastation of the civil war, the resulting poverty, the sins visited upon each successive generation. In the family tree of our region one form of blues was lodged in the African American community, another in the white community, and this we came to call country music, it was also born in the slavery of the coal mines of Appalachia. The poorest states in the U.S., to this day, are the states where country music and the blues were born: Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama.

We were a region that held to a deep belief in God, and yet we had experienced loss, and we were trying to make sense of it all. The music at the heart of all of this---blues and country music---never found its way very much into the church. And there is a reason for that…it parallels this morning’s psalm: we have never know quite what to do with this experience. We learned just enough from the Old Testament to believe that if we trusted God, and did the right thing, we would be rewarded.

Psalm 137, one scholar has noted, is buried in the third year of the lectionary, as an second alternative responsive reading (the other a more hopeful passage from Lamentations). It is a complicated Psalm, not only because it voices the pain of disorientation---being in the wrong place, but it goes farther, and it you are with me, you can see it in the last three verses:

Remember, O Lord, the Edomites, the day Jerusalem fell, How they said, “Tear it down, Tear it down!, Down to its foundations!”O Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

Here the blues turn toward anger, and anger is an emotion that we have never quite known what to do with in the church either. Some hymnals, in their responsive readings, cut it off in verse six. It has been described as an imprecatory psalm, which means it includes curses or prayers that the enemy will be punished. Eugene Peterson calls this “praying our hate”. He writes:

We want to be at our best before God. Prayer, we think, means presenting ourselves before God so that he will be pleased with us. We put on our “Sunday best” in our prayers. But when we pray the…Psalms, we find that this will not do. We must pray who we actually are, not who we think we should be. Psalm 137 is a prayer that brings out not the best in us, but the worst in us: vile, vicious, hate. Can God handle our hate?”

When we find ourselves in a strange place, unable to make sense of it, unwilling to believe that this is how it should be, our options are to live in denial, to experience sadness or to become angry. The psalmist is not in denial. Babylon is not Jerusalem. There is sadness, but there is also anger. The therapists know that, in fact, depression is the turning of the anger within ourselves. The activists tell us that anger can be channeled toward some constructive purpose: the deaths by freezing of several men in Charlotte years ago and the building of the first homeless shelters. The theologians see the enemy as everything that works against the purposes of God: a ravaging cancer that takes a life, a pervasive greed that shrivels the soul. The gospels radically revise our posture toward the enemy: we are to love them and pray for them, Jesus says.

To sing the Lord’s song in a strange land is to embrace the dissonance: a loving God and an unloving world, a purposeful God and a chaotic world, or, to bring it closer to home, authentic faith and real doubt, an acceptance of grace for myself and an unwillingness to forgive others, green pastures, still waters, a restored soul and a temple destroyed to the foundations, and the desire for an appropriate revenge: your little ones dashed against the rocks. The psalm echoes the word of Jesus: I believe, help my unbelief!

It is praying our sadness, praying our disorientation, praying our hatred, praying our anger. It is best that we do not cut these verses out of our Bible, remove them from our hymnal, cast them aside too quickly, for somewhere along the way, this is where we live, asking a question that really has no answer: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Sources: Eugene Peterson, Living The Message. Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary (Van Horn and Strawn).


Blogger Meme said...

It is hard to sing a song when mother has dementia and Austin is 92 and needs lots of help. I am enjoying your blog and am so thankful for the time you were with us and how good you were to daddy. Cathy Webb- East Bend

6:19 PM  
Blogger ken carter said...

hey cathy,
it is great to hear from you. bill was a wonderful man, and i remember that extended time at the end of his life. he was fortunate to have such a loving family. take care, and i hope you are well,

6:31 AM  

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