By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Psalm 137: 1-4
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? How indeed? It happens, those times in the annals of history whereby you are taken captive by circumstance. All the creature comforts that were the bumper rails for an easy faith have vanished.
“No plan survives first contact with the enemy” according to Helmuth von Moltke. That’s the wakeup call, that it might be time for a plan B. Plan B is not spontaneous. It is likely the result of some painful introspection. Plan B takes stock of the reasons for your faith that are no longer there, and asks if there is anything else to sustain it. It is no longer because of faith, it is in spite of faith, otherwise known as faith in a void.
And indeed as the Scriptures tell us the oxymoron at the centre of belief is not based on what you can see. It is by nature invisible. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 1:1. How can we hold on to what cannot be seen?
We have many examples of those who were forced to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. As recent as the last generation, we have people like Corrie Ten Boom, Louis Zamperini, and Deitrich Bonhoeffer, prisoners of war whose enduring testimony spawned books and movies. But a careful reading of those stories takes us back to the fact that they believed when there was nothing solid to pin that belief to.
The painful reflection in Psalm 137 notes that some calamities are made worse by the sentiments of those who rejoice in your misery. What position of power better than to gloat over someone else’s misfortune? It is malice as the human spice of evil.
I suspect therefore that the kind of faith which abides, looks beyond the personal to a larger source of hope. In the case of Christians, we look to Christ the author and finisher of our faith, whose own journey was triumph borne out of suffering, lest we forget in North America, where “Name it and Claim it” sometimes seems to prevail.
Oddly, there are those in the past who saw their sufferings as an opportunity to sing out all the more loudly. The most strange example is Paul and Silas in prison. Paul wrote his epistles in chains, rejoicing that the Gospel was not in chains. It rang forth every time his pen hit the paper. What did he say? Rejoice in the Lord.
And that is what he did when beaten and left in chains. The story is told in Acts chapter 16, where Paul and Silas were arrested in Philippi, Greece. The plan had been to retrace their steps to revisit the fledgling churches they had established, and to encourage them. Theirs was to be a witness of bondage, without any hint to the possible outcome. We are told that “at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.” (Acts 16: 25). Moreover, they sang loudly. Circumstances would not shut them up. They woke up all the other prisoners. If you have to sing in chains, I guess the lesson is, remember to sing loudly because others will hear you.
How do you sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? All the more loudly when the reason for your faith is no longer because of, but in spite of. That’s the kind of faith people pay attention to. It’s why their stories stick with us until today, after their particular calamities have long passed.
“Beautiful things are created by people who both lament and hope.”