The yearning for returning to the past may keep us from discovering the new opportunities and perspectives which this time affords us.
Janus, Roman god
The Revd Dr Gary Heard (Thursday 9 July)
One of the more well-known Psalms was popularised in song by Boney M in the 1970s. Psalm 137 reflects the grief and devastation of the Israelites in exile in Babylon after they were isolated from the Promised Land, knowing that the Temple had been destroyed as the last act of their captors. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion… How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” is their refrain. The yearning to return to a land well-known to them, and to restore what once was, gives birth to the psalmist’s lament. The lament is not only for a lost land, but a lost connection with God. The new environment – in Babylon – prevented them from undertaking their usual patterns of worship which reminded them of God’s presence.
What is often forgotten is that there is another chapter in the Old Testament which speaks of a different experience in the very same place. The book of the prophet Ezekiel opens with these words: “In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God (Ezek 1:1). The highlighted words remind the reader that here in the place where the word of Psalm 137 (by the rivers of Babylon) reverberate with lament for disconnection with God, Ezekiel encounters God afresh!
The geography of these two passages is central to the different experience. The Israelites in lament have their eyes focused to the south – to the land left behind. Ezekiel’s vision of God comes by looking to the north – “I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north” (1:4) – which was the direction from which the invading Babylonian army had come to take the Israelites captive. In that time the North was the place from where threats emanated. It was not a place to go looking for God. And yet, by looking in the direction of the threat, Ezekiel discovers God – a vision of God not limited by temple, but with wings, with different faces, and with differing imagery.
These two passages depict two responses to crisis – one which looks back and laments what is lost, and an alternate which looks into the crisis and discovers God afresh, and anew. As difficult as it is to look directly into the source of the crisis, it is the place from whence hope is reborn, the place from which God is at work.
We are now in a strange land, albeit becoming a little more familiar. The yearning for returning to the past keeps us from discovering the new opportunities and perspectives which this time affords us. Instead of seeing ourselves as having lost something, by seeing ourselves as freed from an old way of being, we are able to investigate, explore and create new ways of being. Curse or gift? The choice is ours.