One of my favorite songs of all time is Don McLean’s rendition of “Waters of Babylon” – a beautiful, haunting, sad three part canon that mourns the loss of Zion and the captivity of the Jews following the Babylonian’s destruction of all they had known and loved, including the Temple and the City of Jerusalem, in 586 BCE.
The lyrics are taken from Psalm 137 in the Bible, which I quote in full here (using the New Revised Standard Version):
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!
It is times such as the recent shootings in Newtown and this week’s bombing at the Boston Marathon that bring back this song into my mind in all its power and beauty – the events and the music working together to forcefully remind me of how frail and fragile our human existence is; that our time on earth, and the lives of us and all of our fellow human beings, are far too precious to waste.
This song is so powerful for me because it gives words to a grief and a pain that would otherwise be too deep, too inchoate, to find adequate words to express. And that is what I am feeling today, as are so many of us.
After beginning with such poignant, beautiful words, the author goes on to write of the finality of their loss: how can they ever sing such songs again, especially in the presence of their captors? How can they ever experience joy again? And yet, we don’t want to let go of the memory of those joys, nor should we.
This memory of loss, still so fresh in their mind, then brings the author to write of their intense desire to inflict the pain they’ve suffered back upon their oppressors. They describe their grief so beautifully, then turn to describing their anger with equally vibrant and breathtakingly fierce images.
And yes, it is OK to feel that anger, it is OK to allow ourselves to experience it, just as it is OK to experience the grief and sadness. It is part of what being human is all about. Our emotions are a critical part of who and what we are. Without emotions, we could not love, without emotions we could not create, and we could not grieve; but also, without emotions, we would not destroy and we would not hate.
Grief and anger always seem to walk together: we grieve the loss, but also experience anger because of it. We experience anger and hurt at the destruction of things we hold dear, and, ultimately, we are angry at how critical pieces of our very soul and identity have been stolen by the sickness and evil of some unknown individual or group. Because of them, a vital piece of our identity has been forever altered: broken and twisted into a new and unrecognizable shape as a consequence of their own hate and pain. Therefore, although our own grief rarely allows us to go far enough down the road to see it, the brokenness and pain we are experiencing is not just our own, but is something those unknown others have shared with us. Pain connects us with them, as much as it pains me to admit it, since I want nothing to do with such evil and sickness.
The bombing in Boston occurred just after my Senior Pastor and I had had a preliminary discussion of his plans for this coming Sunday’s worship service. The reading for this week is from the 23rd Psalm, among the most widely known passages in the Bible, and one that has probably been translated into more languages than any other passage in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is a passage widely used in funerals and memorial services, making it far more appropriate than ever, given the tragedies of unthinking violence and hatred that have been visited upon us and our children in recent months, including this week.
And, just like Psalm 137 and Don McLean’s song, it is so widely appreciated because Psalm 23 also contains universal truths and touches us deeply, reaching much farther than mere words of comfort will ever go. It speaks to us with more than words, connecting our very souls.
But, in saying it connects our very souls, I’m implying we are connected to something by Psalm 23, and by Psalm 137 – but to what?
To answer that question, Christians and Jews focus on verse 4 of Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
The message is unmistakeable, God walks with us in these hard times, just as at all other times. Christians believe that the life of Jesus is a witness to God’s walking among us as a human being: “The Word made Flesh,” an explicit statement that God has experienced what it means to be human in every respect – being born, experiencing love, laughter, doubt, hunger, pain, fear, and finally death. God walks with us, God is with us – now and forever.
And yet, that statement of companionship, hope and compassion ends with the phrase “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Just as the author of Psalm 137 did, the author of Psalm 23 presents us with the two sides of grief and pain, using the symbols of the shepherd, which also happened to be symbols of Kingly power throughout the cultures and Kingdoms of the ancient Near East – not just in Israel.
The staff is a symbol of compassion, of guidance and of companionship. The Shepherd uses the staff to keep the flock together, to guide them to the most fruitful pastures and clean waters, and to rescue them when they have fallen into a hole or gotten caught in a bush. However, there is also the rod: a symbol of authority and strength, a weapon for defending oneself and ones’ flock from danger, and a means of knocking us back on course when we stray.
Grief and pain are an inescapable aspect of the human condition. God does have compassion for us, and I believe our Creator grieves with us when we go through such times, and endeavors to do all that can be done to minimize the pain and turmoil and grief we experience. But that does not mean pain is unavoidable, because we do have free wills: we have the right to make choices, as do others, choices for good or ill. Choices that promote the Kingdom of God, and choices that impede its progress. And, unfortunately, the choices of others can and will lead to pain for us, as they have done here, most especially for those directly impacted by these events.
And so, I feel that we can find two courses of action to follow, based on the example of Christ and the mandate of these scriptures. The first is to grieve and to walk in solidarity with those who are experiencing grief and pain as much or more than ourselves, just as Christ does with us. This is the enactment of the Staff, of the Love of God – which we, as members of the Body of Christ here on earth, are called to do.
The second is to recognize that while we are not responsible for the evil of those who have done these things, we are called upon to recognize that we too are flawed human beings, and just as capable of evil as they. We are also capable of hurting others, have done so in the past, and will do so in the future. It is doubtful we will ever inflict pain on the magnitude of what we have witnessed today, but nevertheless, we do cause pain for others, pain that can last a lifetime. This is the rod, and it brings about an inner conviction that springs from the Holy Spirit working within us, to recognize that we can (and must) always do more to help this world become a more compassionate caring, loving place – to engage in concrete action to help mankind to move ever closer to the ideal of God’s Kingdom here on Earth.
And so I ask what our role is here, today? We are not only called to sit and grieve, even though we are in the midst of the period and place when this is what must be done. We are also called to compassion – to those directly impacted, to those who have been wounded in their bodies and their spirits by these events. We are also called to work in the world to help eliminate the forces and situations that bring about the circumstances that lead to hurting and sick individuals making the choice to cause such pain, to destroy the beauty, hope and joy they find (and hate) within others, hope and joy that they have lost.
I do not believe we are called to forgive them for what they have done in the sense of letting them escape punishment for their crimes – they must bear the responsibility for the choices they have made – but that does not mean we should move against them in hate and anger, but rather with sorrow and forgiveness, for it was the pain, sorrow and hopelessness they experienced in their own lives – somehow, somewhere – that drove them to make such choices, that has made them into the very thing they once feared and hated.
They are just as human as we, and so, but for the grace of God, we could one day find ourselves engaging in similar acts, deluded into believing the lie that our own pain and brokenness matters more to God than that of those who have afflicted us with theirs. It is not possible to afflict them with that which we are already sharing, and attempting to do so only prolongs the process of healing for us all.
Copyright (c) 2013, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site).
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