Did you hear about the new bamboo trees at the zoo? It was pandamonium out there!


After our experience with "worship writing" had passed, I prepared our congregation for a responsive reading that we would participate in together. The reading was the familiar passage where the author repeats over and over "His love endures forever" - Psalm 136. A beautiful piece of poetry the Jews called "The Great Hallel". It reads:

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good.
His love endures forever.
2 Give thanks to the God of gods.
His love endures forever.
3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
His love endures forever.

4 to him who alone does great wonders,
His love endures forever.
5 who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures forever.
6 who spread out the earth upon the waters,
His love endures forever.
7 who made the great lights—
His love endures forever.
8 the sun to govern the day,
His love endures forever.
9 the moon and stars to govern the night;
His love endures forever.

10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
His love endures forever.
11 and brought Israel out from among them
His love endures forever.
12 with a mighty hand and outstretched arm;
His love endures forever.

13 to him who divided the Red Sea[a] asunder
His love endures forever.
14 and brought Israel through the midst of it,
His love endures forever.
15 but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea;
His love endures forever.

16 to him who led his people through the wilderness;
His love endures forever.

17 to him who struck down great kings,
His love endures forever.
18 and killed mighty kings—
His love endures forever.
19 Sihon king of the Amorites
His love endures forever.
20 and Og king of Bashan—
His love endures forever.
21 and gave their land as an inheritance,
His love endures forever.
22 an inheritance to his servant Israel.
His love endures forever.

23 He remembered us in our low estate
His love endures forever.
24 and freed us from our enemies.
His love endures forever.
25 He gives food to every creature.
His love endures forever.

26 Give thanks to the God of heaven.
His love endures forever.

-Psalm 136 (NIV)

I told the congregation that I was aware of the many aversions to responsive readings. For a lot of us, the responsive readings are typically read with about the same vigor and passion as a small town diner waitress on her third straight shift asking if you'd like biscuits or toast. But my challenge for all of us was to think intently about each sentence, each massive statement that is written before their response, and to read that response with the intensity that such a statement demands.

"His love endures forever"

Longer than we can even understand. Completely outside the realm and scope of our apprehension. His love is greater, wider, and deeper than our lexicon could ever describe. And it endures forever.

As we went through each dynamic verse together, I could hear some voices taking their time with each word, allowing each syllable to ring true in their hearts. I heard some shout while others could barely whisper the words. What a beautiful response to such an incomprehensible truth. The variety of God's creation, replying from the wonderful uniqueness of their heart. It was such a powerful display.

Once we finished the reading, I moved into the main text for the morning, the very next psalm - Psalm 137. It reads:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

7 Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

-Psalm 137

Now, Psalm 137 is the only psalm that is historically precise as to when and why it was written. It was written roughly 587 BCE regarding the Israelites exile to Babylon. Jerusalem had been burned to the ground, even the glorious temple of Solomon and the Judean elite (the smartest and strongest) were brought into captivity. All of the business leaders, teachers, artists, and landowners were exiled, while the peasants were left behind to amalgamate until they eventually became the Samaritans we know of in the New Testament.

The "rivers of Babylon" mentioned in verse one would most likely be the irrigation canals that channeled water from the Tigris to the Euphrates rivers - rivers of substantial size. So, imagine these Israelites, likely frightened and rather despondent, forced to the river's bank, and mockingly being told to sing songs of their homeland. To bring forth the melody of their forefathers, and their God, who did not save them from captivity. What a terrifying scene that must have been for them.

In fact, the same thing was done to the Jews during World War 2 at some of the concentration camps. Jewish prisoners were forced to sing and dance songs of their heritage as one final way to strip them of whatever dignity they had left before being executed. These guards were trying to turn God into a parody - but these detainees refused.

And that is where these Israelites find themselves. In a strange and foreign land, being brutally ridiculed and scorned, commanded to make a joke of their God. But they refuse as well. They hang their harps in fact. And for our congregation here at Poplar Creek, it was particularly powerful because the trees they hung their instruments on - were poplars.

Isn't that where many of us find ourselves? Wondering how to sing God's melody in a world of cacophony, struggling to find or follow the tune amidst the discord? As we sit beside our culture's streams of influence in the office and at the mall, in front of the TV and at the beach, how do we maintain a voice and a song that will sound remarkably different, and even inspiring, in the ears of the world?

We know from scripture that this is the case for every follower of the rabbi named Jesus. We are not residents here. This is not our home, we are only temporary visitors - but a breath in the greater scope of the narrative of God's redemption.

Early in 1 Peter, we're reminded that our residency is truly not here on Earth at all.

Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. 18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
- 1 Peter 1:17 (NIV)

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.

- 1 Peter 2:11 (NIV)

These truths have monumental consequences for how we live our lives, for how we worship, serve, and love. We are not citizens. In fact, we are squatters at best. Our task is to live as those whose perspective in set on home, in all that we do. Paul says it so poignantly in Philippians:

14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky
-Philippians 2:14-15

Picture it for a second. Dozens, if not hundreds, of these Levite harps hanging in the branches of nearby trees, the rushing of the powerful Babylonian river behind you, and the jeering of your captors before you. Can you sense it virtually welling up inside of you? I can almost hear myself say with uncharacteristic courage "My God will not be mocked".

But we mustn't forget the song of our forefathers, of our Redeemer. One author intuitively writes:

Each of us has his or her own "Babylon" where we live as God's holy temple and so where we need to find ways to carve out a distinctly Christian way to be a lawyer or a homemaker, a teacher or a doctor, a mechanic or a real estate agent. Each of us has his or her own breakroom or lunch room or cafeteria or family room where we need to discern the distinctive sounds of the Lord's song in a cacophonous world of competing melodies, not a few of which seek to drown out the Lord's gospel song in favor of the tunes of Babylon.

The pathos among the people in this psalm is caught in the words "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?". We don't belong here in Babylon. This language is not our language. This food is not our diet. The stories told to our children are not our stories. These values are not are values. And most importantly, these gods are not our God. We are refugees here. Wanderers, faced with the daunting task of swimming upstream, to sing songs of our ancestry. We must write down, collect, and preserve that which describes what it means to be a child of the Living God , as one author writes. Or this foreign culture with these unbelieving ways will swallow us up, and we will lose our identity as God's chosen people.

In verses 5 and 6, the Psalmist writes that he'd rather have a lame hand and a mouth that doesn't work than to forget the God of life. It is likely that this author was a songwriter and a musicians, so to lose these two skills would be truly detrimental to his livelihood and well-being. How many of us truly have such fervent faith? Would we dare say we'd rather lose our jobs and become utterly mute than betray Jesus with the patterns and words that hinder the ushering of His Kingdom to a hurting world?

Spiritual amnesia is something that none of us are invulnerable to.

And on Sunday, we remembered. We didn't throw away our harps, we merely hung them up because we knew that God is directing and redirecting our hearts. We will not sing merely for entertainment, the likes of which Babylon cries out for in our hearts and lives every day. His melody is not for jest, He will not be abated or abridged. He is the Lord.

So how do we do this? How do we sing the Lord's song in such a strange land? Provers 2 says:

Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it. -Proverbs 22:6 (NASB)

The English rendering of the word "train" inaccurately conveys a sense rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior the way one would train a pet, but that is not truly what this word means. The root of this word actually describes the practice of the mother of a newborn when she takes mortar and pestle and grinds fruit into a fine powder that is then put on her finger to teach the baby how to suckle.

As strange as it seems, the "mother's milk" of life is to be found in the stories of scripture that tell what it means to be a child of God in foreign territory. The stories of Abraham and Issac, of Sara and Deborah, of Moses and David, of Paul, and of Jesus - people who undertake to be relentlessly faithful in this world while they await the next.

That is precisely why there is an unquenchable restlessness in all of us. It's an innate tugging that remind us of our brevity.

As someone very close to my heart recently quoted - Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee
-St Augustine

If you are a follower of this homeless teacher named Jesus, your home is not in Babylon. You are not fully at home here, you weren't created to be. Your citizenship is heaven - a kingdom that awaits us. While we are here, it is the role of the Christian community of faith to nurture one another for the journey, to hum the tune of our ancestry in the ears of those around us, to help us each sing the song of beautiful restoration, of immeasurable redemption, and unending grace.

As we celebrated Communion together, I stepped off the stage and we sang, voices only, the great hymn Amazing Grace. Holding that small plastic cup, remembering again how truly undeserving we are to ever to commune to even associate through worship with the God of the universe, and His unceasing pursuit to draw us to Himself.

And we celebrate together, with the song of our Creator. May we shine as vessels of grace and truth in a world longing for the reality of redemption.

Stumbling, flawed, broken, and off-key, we sing.

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