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Singing In a Strange Land

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 strange land?” Psalm 137:1-4

“How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” That was the question posed by the Israelites when they were enslaved in the land of Babylon.

Psalm 137 is a psalm of lament. It was written while the people of Israel were being held captive. Far away from their homeland, their oppressors chided them requiring of them a song. “Sing us the songs of Zion,” they teased. And the cry of the Lord’s children came back, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

At this time in the history of Israel, God’s people were homesick. They were mournful. They were robbed of their physical and emotional energy to sing the songs of Zion, even to the point of hanging up their harps among the willow trees. They gave up their song.

Singing is one of my joys. I have a memory of being around the age of nine years old and riding in the car with my mom. As she drove, I was singing along to the radio when she remarked that I had a pretty voice and asked if I would like to take some voice lessons. That moment marked a beginning for me. My mom recognized something in me and gave me the opportunity to develop that skill.

From that point on, music became a driving force in my life. It was my joy and passion to sing. There were piano lessons, guitar lessons, school choruses, church choirs, and lots of practice sessions. I would go on to major in music in college and seminary and earn degrees in church music and vocal performance.

Music has been a gift in my life. Beyond giving me an academic and career focus, music has been a means for experiencing the Divine in my life. There have been times when music has taken me into a sacred space where I have felt closer to God than in any other time or space. It has been in those moments when I have felt that I was experiencing “the Lord’s song” much like the Hebrew children did.

For many years, I dwelt in a land where I could sing my songs. I was in a place where the melodies flowed easily and the harmonies were pleasing. To make music with fellow musicians who share the same passion; to stand beside my brothers and sisters in the church and proclaim the goodness of God through hymn singing; to listen to the quiet joy of children singing; and to feel the power of a lone voice raising an Easter alleluia – that was my Zion.

Things changed. Life changed. I had to leave the familiar place and travel to a distant land. It is a place I never expected to be. The ground is unfamiliar. The scenery has changed. No, I am not a slave like the Israelites, but I have found myself in an unexpected place and the question of the Hebrew children has become my question. – “how do I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

The strange land may look different for each of us. For some, it may be a new job, a new home, or a new relationship. For others, it may be a diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, or the severing of a relationship. Like the Israelites, we have intentionally laid aside our song, hung up our harps, and wept. Our tears have mingled with the streams that have flowed through our lives, and we have only had the energy to sit down and cry.

How do we take up the song again? When will the Lord give us a voice that is loosened from the tight grip of grief? When will we retrieve our harps from the willows and make music again? How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

What I am learning through my experience of living in a foreign land, is that God dwells in foreign places too. I am learning that there are other places to sing and other people to sing the song with me. I am discovering that my True Self goes with me – the essence of who I am is never lost to God.

Frederick Buechner says it this way, “Maybe, in the end, it is Zion that we are lonely for, the place we know best by longing for it, where at last we become who we are, where finally we find home.”


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