NOTE: Last week I wrote about my hunch that those of us in the church today will be known as the “letting go generation.” Here is a similar reflection by the Rev. Scott Delgarno, poet and pastor at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Beaverton, Oregon.
“How Can We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land?”
Questions from Psalm 137 “For Such a Time as This”
“By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion.” Exiled by the pandemic from familiar churchly ways, we, too, remember the past and long to restore a recalled normalcy. Psalm 137 belongs to a canon of Scripture which centers on return and restoration of the community, of Jerusalem, of temple, of a retrieved normality.
What happened? A few eventually returned; most stayed in Babylonia. Restoration remained an ideal throughout Jewish history, the touchstone of many new normalities. What, then, will be our “new normal(s)?” Can reflection on Psalm 137 give us any help as we struggle to resolve the uncertainty?
We are currently asking ourselves, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in this moment of transition with the self-abandonment that singing calls up in us?” Is the fact that some of us are singing with masks on a metaphor for where we are?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Judahite exiles in Babylonia faced the reality of what they had lost, what they might forget, and the odds against the survival of their culture. While those who “remembered Zion” might long for it, what of their children and grandchildren? For the young, a return to Zion would mean exile. What a dangerous time the transitional adult generation faced. They risked losing their sense of themselves – unless they found a way to preserve something of “home” in exile, something that would last longer than the cedar paneling of their temple back in Jerusalem lying in ashes.
According to Jeremiah, “false” prophets said the exile would be short. Once the reality of the situation set in, the Judahites’ chief emotion became anger.
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! …
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
There’s a lot of anger today. How does one get beyond anger or harness it for good? Could opportunities to address racial injustices be at hand? Could vaccinated and vaccine-wary Christians find common ground?
On the pandemic plus side, we have found that our sense of the boundaries of our parishes has grown exponentially. We are not confined by the size of our buildings or rubrics and expectations that fenced us in before. Is this something we are embracing or are we hoping it will pass away? Longing for the old ways is strong in us. What would it mean to “build houses and live in them” in this new land? (Jeremiah 29:5)
Walter Brueggemann (whom Patrick Miller has edited) has said, “[The] Old Testament is, to a great extent, a book of poetry because it brings its reading community close to the extremity of a God who refuses to be boxed in by conventional expectations or reduced to conventional formulation.” He adds, “Poetry [is] an invitation to live, ever more daringly into the extremity, to embrace the freedom required in the extremity, and to accept the responsibility for engaging the extremity of risk and danger.”
If this is true, will the church embrace the responsibility that comes with the present moment? Will we think outside our steepled boxes of tradition and creed? If so, how? If “Jerusalem” was no longer a possibility, what would it mean for us to …
… set Jerusalem above my highest joy?
The Judahite exiles did this by eventually letting go of “Zion” as a physical address. They became a people of a book, making the Torah the touchstone of their faith and identity; something “neither moth nor rust can destroy, nor thieves break in and steal.”
Recent research into cuneiform sources for Judahites in Babylonia in the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Periods (Pearce and Wunsch, Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia …) greatly enhances our awareness that a community of Judahites continued in Mesopotamia for generations beyond the return of some to Jerusalem.
We can imagine, then, that several different manifestations of “church” will probably survive –
1) going back to pre-Covid church with no online presence; 2) leaving the brick and mortar church for a fully online presence; 3) adopting a hybrid approach.
What other manifestations of church may be “slouching toward” newness at this time?
What of God might emerge from the elders among us in such a time of transition, realizing we are a bridge generation, having once thought we knew so much about being church?