When we figured out that we would not gather again as congregations for Easter because of COVID, we were stunned, and sad, and a little overwhelmed, but we figured we’d be back by summer. Now we know that this is not a short interruption, but seismic disruption of our common life.
When the world falls apart and we the life we know suddenly disappears, our natural response is lament. When Nebuchadnezzar’s army tore down Solomon’s Temple and flattened Jerusalem, hauling most of Israel into exile in Babylon, there was rightly and properly lament:
By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps…How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? – Psalm 137:1-3;4 NRSV
Maybe you can relate to that lament (one of many in Scripture). I know I can. But even without the Temple, even isolated, even captive in a world they never made, God’s people find something beyond lament. Jeremiah brought them a word from the Lord:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. . . bear children. . . seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. – Jeremiah 1:4-7, NRSV
God encourages Israel not to stay stuck forever, harps hanging in the trees, even when exile from the Promised Land continues with no end in sight. The circumstances are what they are. This is your life, for this time. Don’t throw it away. Wash your face and brush your teeth — adapt to the reality you find yourself in. Make the most of the time you have. Look to the future, but live in the present.
The Hebrew people used exile time to re-forge their identity as a people. Much of the Hebrew Scriptures were committed to writing. The home observance of Shabbat, the Sabbath, increased in importance as the people figured out how to worship God, and preserve and hand down their spiritual traditions when they could not go to the Temple or engage in familiar spiritual practices. They did build houses and plant gardens, contributing to the society that had destroyed Jerusalem.
Some days, my sense of loss and lament over COVID, unemployment, natural disasters, racial strife, polarized politics, and intense national anxiety threatens to overwhelm me. Then I want to hang up my harp and wail. But the old texts remind me: Look to the future and to God’s promised reign of love — and live now, noticing the abundance of God’s creation, building for the Kingdom in whatever way is at hand. These days are life, too. There is goodness to find and to create in the world, always, and there is promise, and the long arc of God’s saving grace draws us ever forward.
Pray for me, an unwilling exile making the most of the life that is, as I pray for you, and for our journey into whatever emerges tomorrow.
The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Brooke-Davidson