Written on Friday, 2nd October, 2015
One of the readings for Mass on Wednesday, 30th September 2015, was taken from Psalms 137: 1-4. It reminded me of a popular song that I am sure we all know:
By the Rivers of Babylon/where we sat down/there we wept/when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars, we hung our harps/ For here our captors asked us for songs/
Our tormentors demanded songs of joy/ They said ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion’/
How can we sing the songs of the Lord/ while in a foreign land?
I know the Boney M version of this song, which my mum and late father had LP disks of and which we therefore grew up listening to. When this Psalm was read in church that Wednesday during lunchtime Mass, it took me back to those days of our LP record player which Anguo (our dad) imported during one of his work travels abroad when we lived in Malindi, in the mid 80’s.
Besides the nostalgic memory that this reading aroused, the sermon given by the priest made the song even more poignant.
You see, I had never quite understood the context of this song. I learned properly, that Wednesday, and thereafter upon more research, that it was sung at a particular time when the Jews were in exile in Babylon. They had been taken away from their land by King Nebuchadnezzar, who by the way, I came to learn, was a very short man and that he ‘made up’ for his lack of height by being extremely cruel. As we all know, Adolf Hitler was also quite short. But this is not about short people, and certainly not about cruel people.
The Jews felt insulted when they were asked to sing the songs of Zion in Babylon. They asked, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” This line spoke to me strongly. I thought of how at times we feel that we are out of our comfort zone because of problems happening in our lives. You may physically be in the same house or place where you always are, but when things are tough or rough, it feels very much like you are in exile. It feels like you are away from home and have been captured by cruel captors- whoever they may be, whatever they may be.
At times, the woes are to do with relationships, maybe a relationship that is going sour, between you and a friend, or partner, or between you and family member. At times it’s financial, when ends just are not meeting, or at times a job is not coming through and yet you have been praying for one for ages. Other times, it is a death in the family that leaves you with more questions than answers. Or a situation where you feel like your life is in limbo, or that you have been disappointed by someone, or worse still, that you have disappointed yourself because you have reneged on a promise or commitment that you made to yourself or to someone. In this sense, there are many ‘Babylons’ in our lives- so to speak.
Now, hold that thought and let me take you also to the First Reading of that Wednesday Mass. It was taken from the Book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah, who was an Israelite prophet, was asking a king of a place where they had been exiled to, to allow him to go back to Jerusalem to build the Lord’s temple which had been destroyed during the capture of Jews. Nehemiah did not expect a favorable answer from his captor because this King was a non-Jew, but he- Nehemiah- asked God to grant him favor. In an interesting twist of things, the king granted him not only permission to go but also materials to rebuild the temple.
How does it connect? You see, a huge part of why the Jews were feeling so lost in Babylon, besides the cruelty of Nebuchadnezzar, was that they were being forced to worship the gods of the place where they were. Their temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and it felt like God had left the temple. Can you imagine that? God had left the temple. The place where God was supposed to dwell. The place that was specifically built for Him to dwell.
Here is where I connect the two references. For those who are believers, we are often told that our bodies are the temple of the Lord. Literally this means that God dwells in us, in our bodies, in our heats in our minds. And when we are feeling troubled because of some of the reasons I mentioned above, it is easy to feel like God has left the temple. At times we feel that maybe we have done wrong and have thus ‘destroyed’ the temple and have been captured by whatever the bad forces are, and thus God surely cannot still be living with us.
But that’s the point I want to make that I learned from the reading that Wednesday. God never quite leaves us. He still dwells in us. In fact, what the priest said at that Mass, was that even when our hearts are sad, desolate, empty… our hearts can still be the temple of the Lord. So we mustn’t give up. We must just work on rebuilding it. He is always willing to stay and when we feel empty, it is not because He has left, it is because we let the ‘captors’ blind us. He never quite leaves. Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that comforting?
In concluding, if you feel like you are in Babylon right now, sitting by the river, weeping, remembering Zion, remembering a time when you were happy, when things were in order, when everything was happening as it should, don’t despair. You will ‘return home’ one day, or home will return to you. Or perhaps, you will even create a new home and it will be as good as, or better, than the one you left. You will have reason to sing the Lord’s song again. We will have reason to sing again. Let us sing, then, even in the meantime. As hard as it is, we are required to remain hopeful not despite being in exile, but especially when we are in exile. The city will be rebuilt. The temple will be rebuilt. And, if you allow Him, the Lord will show you that He is still in the temple, still on the throne, and He will stay in there, for better for worse.
I hope these thoughts uplift you as they did me. By the Rivers of Babylon.