psalm 137: scraping the sides of the human condition

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Babylon / Captivity / Current Affairs / Hope / Old Testament / Psalm / Theology


I’m on sabbatical right now, and my “main” project is about creating a robust spirituality of hope. Below is small piece of this project, which is still very much in process. 

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.

When the Hebrew Bible wants to deal with pain, it turns to poetry.

Psalm 137 is one of those poems that scrapes the emotion off the sides of the human condition. It starts with weeping and it ends with white-hot anger.

While surveying the deep despair of the Babylonian captivity it sets sail directly into the midst of the storm.

And, as a part of the Book of Psalms it becomes not just a song for a particular time and place, but an example of what one can do when in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Blind optimism isn’t the faithful move. Looking for silver linings isn’t healthy or holy when someone has been knocked on their back by a crisis.

Truth can have a cold, dull edge to it, but at least it’s real. When it cuts you, at least you know what it is that you’re feeling.

The Israelites, captive in Babylon, acknowledged their brutal reality by weeping, and by hanging up their harps.

You can imagine a scenario where they might have just wanted to forget about it all. Where they might have succumbed to the temptation to just let it go and sing the old songs.

You know, to make the kids feel better.

To help everyone feel a little more at home. To forget about the bad times, and just move on. To find the silver lining in this new city, with its new rivers.

But, no.

They wept. They publicly displayed and abandoned their instruments of song.

Even when their captors asked them to sing one of their old songs, they refused. Those songs would not be sung here, because those songs are about a life there, and that life is no longer.

To sing here, now, would be an abandonment of reality.

After the horrific terrorist attack on the nightclub in Orlando, I visited the makeshift memorial outside the Stonewall Inn – the epicenter of the LGBT community in New York City. There were so many candles that even on a cool, breezy night, the air was thick with their warmth and scent.

Amidst a heavy police presence, people just stood there, or sat on the park benches, holding onto one another while quietly sobbing. The heat of the candles and the emotion caught me off guard. I had been carrying a weight around with me all day. It was the sadly all-too-familiar weight of sadness and anger and bewilderment over how in the world this kind of evil was even possible in the world.

But, it wasn’t until I was in the middle of a group of people who were actively grieving that the emotion inside of me came bubbling to the surface.

I sat there wondering if these quietly mourning people were mourning because they knew people who had been among the 49 victims. I wondered if perhaps they had been to that nightclub. If they had some personal connection to the madness.

But, their connection was probably the same as mine: we are all human beings, and one of our own had committed an atrocity against several dozen others of our own.

And all we could do is weep. And remember.

The drumbeat of Psalm 137 thumps against amnesia.

We sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget it’s skill.

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you.

Remember the day of Jerusalem, O Lord.

The act of remembrance is a defiant one. It’s says that we will not just wipe the slate clean. We will not simply move on. We will carry this thing around with us, in our hearts, and in our souls. Remembering says that this thing that broke us will not be put in a drawer and forgotten, but rather we will graft it into our identity. It will become part of who we are.

And this is the existential move against fear. When we choose fear, we put the boogeyman in the closet or under the bed. We take it off the table and try to pretend that there is nothing to see here.

Remembering takes what could be feared and sets it out for all to see and says “now what are your going to do?”

And this all but guarantees that sadness will not be the end of the line. There will be more.

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy be the one who pays you back for what you have done to us. Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock!

It’s amazing that these verses are actually in the Bible. Truly.

Most churches never read them. The lectionaries which guide the Sunday readings of many Christian denominations cut off psalm 137 before we get to the nasty bits.

And, I get it. I really do.

It takes a mature faith to be able to pray the end of this Psalm. It takes a faith imbued with gravity.

But, to excise these words is to excise anger from the human condition. It denies what is there anyway.

It denies the truth.

To willfully ignore the end of Psalm 137 takes the language of searing anger out of the language of prayer. It says that anger isn’t something that we say to God. We leave that at the door.

Yet, to leave it at the door is, I think, precisely what allows us to so often act out of our anger. By keeping anger out of sight, festering in the recesses of our minds and on the edge of our culture, gives it a power that it doesn’t deserve.

Wanting to dash your enemies’ babies against the rocks is about as angry as anger gets.

But, by speaking it – by speaking the truth of what it is that you’re thinking and feeling – a release valve is set off, even if just a little bit. By saying it out loud, you might even hear yourself, and realize, “Ok, that was a little out there. I might need to tone that down a bit.”

Personally, I love that these words are in the Bible. Their very presence gives permission to acknowledge the full spectrum of human emotion, and to bring that spectrum to God, and among the gathered People of God.

These words keep religion from being bland politeness, and keep it tethered to the truth; what’s real.

If for no other reason than we can get past the anger, and what’s behind it, so that the better angels within us can find their voice. So that we don’t stay in the twisted whirlpool of hatred and anger, but so that we can move on to some form of compassion and grace that is still rooted in the truth that this thing happened, and because it happened I have been shaken to the core, and because the core of my being was shook I was able to choose the better way forward.

So weep. Hang up your harps. Remember. Cry out, and hold nothing back.

Choose truth.

The Author

follower of Jesus, father of two, husband of one, Episcopal priest, with one book down, one blog up...surrounded by empty jars of nutella

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