Finding Ourselves in the Psalms: When We Are Displaced
Early in my ministry I worked as a chaplain in a state mental hospital in the Louisville area. The hospital was not so different from Morningside, I think. Sometimes I tell people, “The biggest difference between the two groups is that those patients got better.”
Because of that position as chaplain I had frequent contact with psychiatrists. One day I received a phone call from a psychiatrist, asking me to visit a woman living in a nursing home. He said, “Kirk, she is really depressed. I’ve been treating her for several months and honestly just cannot get to the bottom of her depression. I believe her condition has something to do with her faith, but she will not talk to me about that topic.”
I agreed to visit the woman. I sat down in her room at the nursing home and tried to open a conversation with this nice, proper Kentucky lady; but she was very hesitant.
When I said, “Tell me what you have lost,” she started weeping very quietly. As tears ran down her face, she asked, “Do you know where they poured that concrete and built all those buildings for the new mall?”
I answered, “Yes, I do.”
“Do you know that big new four-lane bypass built near that shopping center and all that traffic driving past it?”
“Yes, I know where that bypass is, and I’ve seen all the traffic in the area.”
She then explained, “That land used to be my grandfather’s dairy farm where I lived as a child. I used to play under trees that grew there, but now all the trees have cut down and the land paved with concrete. The place that I knew best is gone.”
This woman’s grief for a place that was no more stemmed from the feeling of being displaced.
I invite you to turn in your Bible to Psalm 137. I will not read the entire passage, just the first six verses. David wrote many of the psalms in the Bible, but someone living in exile in Babylon wrote this one. Listen to the heart of the author. Listen to the grief. Listen to the hurt.
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.
In this lament the author reflects on his people’s despair as they sat by the rivers of Babylon after their captivity. We get the idea that the writer was a musician, someone who previously took part in the worship of Israel by playing a stringed instrument and by singing. Knowing that his people no longer had any desire to sing, he asks, “How can we sing a song of the Lord in a strange land?” He goes on to display the group’s despondency over their situation by mourning, “We hung our harps on a tree.” The author calls the captors “tormenters” who demanded that they play songs of joy, but no such words would come from their lips. He also expresses his desire to remember Jerusalem and Zion, saying that if he ever forgot, he wanted his right hand to wither so that he could not play his instrument any longer and his tongue to cleave to the roof of his mouth so that he could not even hum a tune. This psalmist claims, “When I have been displaced, I can no longer worship. When I have been displaced, I feel as though God is absent. When I have been displaced, I have no desire to worship.”
Jeremiah wrote a letter to these same exiles. Listen to these few verses from Jeremiah 29:4-7:
4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Jeremiah’s letter agrees that the exiles have been displaced and that conditions have been difficult for them. He continues, however, telling them that God demands that they make the best of their circumstances and continue with their lives.
Clare and I spent our first anniversary in a tent at Scout camp on the Wabash River near Vincennes, Indiana. A student in seminary and needing a summer job, I found out that Buffalo Trace Council in southern Indiana needed a chaplain for their camps. Of course, I had a long Scouting background, so I interviewed for the position and got it. Though it did not pay a lot it did offer room and board – a tent and meals cooked by Scouts.
I asked, “Clare, how do you feel about this opportunity and challenge in Indiana?”
She answered, “Kirk, I will go wherever you go.”
That was forty-seven years ago. I do not know that she would be quite so willing now to say the same.
For the first three weeks of that summer, we lived in a tent. On our anniversary the camp staff serenaded us, which was really romantic. We then moved down the Wabash River to another camp and stayed there six weeks in a one-room cabin having a stark light bulb hanging from the ceiling. With no toilet in the cabin, we walked 100 yards on a dirt road to and from the restroom. That facility was equipped with one shower for all staff, mainly men and boys. I stood guard while Clare took her showers.
Clare occupied her time by plugging her sewing machine into the electrical outlet on our light “fixture” and making clothes to wear the next year when she taught school. She also read The Hobbit though I really do not know whether reading about Middle-earth was a good idea when camping in the woods. Clare was a real trooper that summer, but I can tell you that she was so glad to get back to our small four-room apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, when summer ended.
Have you ever been displaced, moved from one familiar location where you really felt comfortable, at ease, to another place that was unfamiliar and strange? Even taking a family vacation can make us feel displaced when we have trouble finding appropriate utensils in the kitchen. Making visits to in-laws can even make us feel displaced.
Those examples seem so silly, though, when we think about the numerous ways people in this world are displaced. Consider the natural disasters that have occurred in recent months: hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires. People in Haiti lived in makeshift tents – a tarp supported by sticks – for months following a devastating hurricane there. Recent tornadoes have turned upside down the lives of countless people in this country. Then consider the terrible outbreak of fires in the West, with perhaps the worst of all burning in Colorado at a place called the Black Forest.
While watching a news report earlier this week, I saw a man from Colorado, talking about what he had lost. He said, “My whole life was in that home. All of my memories, all of my dreams, have all gone up in smoke and flames and been reduced to ashes.”
The psalmist asks, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land when we have been displaced?” Think about the refugees around the world: people from the Sudan, from Darfur, who have lived with political atrocities; the Palestinians, who have been moved around; the refugees in Lebanon and in Jordan, many of whom are Christians; the Syrians who have lost their homes and are now strangers in a strange land. Physical displacement is part and parcel of this life.
The readings earlier in the service this morning indicate a kind of spiritual displacement. Hebrews 11:13-16, which recounts the lives of specific people of faith, concludes by saying that all mentioned died in faith, not having received the promises of God but having seen them from afar. They were confident of those promises and embraced them, even though they felt as though they were “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” That particular descriptive phrase also appears in Ephesians 2:19 when Paul says that all of us feel the same, spiritually speaking. He says, “Every single one of us is a stranger and a pilgrim, aliens from the commonwealth, but through Christ Jesus, we, who were once far off, have been brought near.” Luke 9:58 tells us that Jesus himself felt this displacement, describing himself as a homeless person: “Birds have nests and foxes have dens, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
I recall the example of Moses, who had a silver spoon in his mouth for the first forty years. After being pulled from the River Nile, he grew up in the home of Pharaoh, having every luxury imaginable. His nurse was his own mother; and with her milk, he took in the faith of Israel. Moses had a keen awareness about his spiritual identity, about his spiritual heritage.
One day after seeing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, Moses lashed out and killed the perpetrator. Moses thought he had gotten away with murder until he discovered the next day that his crime was known. At forty years of age, he fled into the wilderness, a fugitive from justice. Moses became a stranger in an unfamiliar land. He had the good fortune – the providence of God, I believe – to meet his future father-in-law, Jethro, who not only included him in his family through marriage but also provided him with work, tending the flocks of sheep and goats.
Forty years later when Moses was eighty, he came upon a site that stopped him in his tracks: a bush that was burning but not consumed. You would think that at some point you reach an age that you do not have to listen to the Lord. Not so. In the encounter with the Lord, Moses learned that God had a mission for him. God revealed, “There is work yet to be done. I want you to return to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let my people go.” Reluctant, Moses balked at the idea but finally relented to God’s request.
A rabbi said recently of this encounter between the two, “The bush has always been burning. It was just that Moses was the first to see it.” The presence of God is always with us, with us in the wilderness, with us where we are pilgrims and strangers. A bush that is always burning will call us. We must see it, pay attention to it, and respond as Moses did.
It is as if Moses had received on-the-job training for those last forty years working for Jethro in the wilderness of Midian. With God’s direction, Moses left his role as shepherd in order to lead a flock of a different sort. He assumed the role of guiding the people of Israel through the wilderness of Sinai for forty years.
Was Moses a displaced person? Yes, he was, just as many others who opted to follow God. The disciples who accepted the call of Jesus left their livelihood, their nets, and their boats, to become disciples of Jesus.
Several psalms later, in Psalm 139, we see a contrasting attitude about the spiritual dimension to this displacement.
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain. Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
What a difference between the two psalms! While Psalm 137 questions, “How can we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?” Psalm 139 asserts, “It does not matter where we go because God is always present. The bush burns for all of us.”
Clare and I had been married for only three months when we left Spartanburg and headed for Louisville, Kentucky. My teeth were gritted and my fists clenched, but I was entering the seminary. We did not have an apartment waiting on us when we arrived; we only had a U-haul trailer packed with all of our worldly goods and a little money.
Clare was packing, putting the last few items in boxes, when her mother, Miz Lib as I knew her, called from New Orleans and engaged her daughter in a long conversation. Clare told her mother, “We have to find a place to live. We do not have a home in Louisville.”
Miz Lib responded, “Clare, your home is wherever you and Kirk are together.” Her husband, Mr. Jack, had worked for Southern Cotton Oil Company. Their family moved from place to place about every two years. They lived in Darlington, then Savannah and Colman, Alabama, and later Macon, Georgia. They also lived in New Orleans before finally settling in South Carolina.
If we are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth,” where is our home? Our home is wherever we are with our heavenly Father. That can be any place. I guess no one feels any more displaced than people in prison or in a mental hospital. Residents in a nursing home can feel displaced just as homeless people can. Wherever you are with your Father in heaven, you are at home.
Do you know the promise of God, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you”? This promise was first given to people wandering through the desert, wandering in the wilderness. God also promises us, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.”
When I was in Royal Ambassadors, R.A.’s, most of what we did was play basketball. I did learn some Scripture, though, and words from the R.A. hymn came to mind when I was preparing this message: “I am a stranger here within a foreign land. My home is faraway upon a golden strand. Ambassador to be of realms beyond the sea, I am here on business for my King.” We must believe the truth of that hymn.
David, the author of Psalm 139, professes God’s promise to be with those in exile and in any other situation: “If I rise up to heaven you are there. If I make my bed in the pit you are there. If I go to the other side of the sea you are there. Wherever I go, you are with me.” We cannot get away from God. We have no geographical escape. He is always with us. That is exactly where we want Him to be.
Jeremiah concluded his letter to the exiles with one of my favorite verses: “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’” I wish that the man commenting on the Colorado fires knew of God’s plans. I wish that people devastated by tornadoes could hear that verse and know that assurance. I wish that refugees in Darfur, in Syria, and in Palestine could know the assurance God provides: “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to do you good and not harm, to give you a future and a hope.’”
Do you know that God will be with you wherever you go? Do you know that He will be with you at every step in your future, even though the future may be very uncertain? He has given us that promise, a promise we can access by faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself felt like a homeless child, but he found a home in heaven with his Father and invites us to follow him. We have God’s promise, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the earth.”
Have you acknowledged Christ Jesus? We invite you to accept him. You respond.
Kirk H. Neely © June 2013