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Harps in the willows: Psalm 137 and our need for encouragement
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, and those who plundered us requested mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How shall we sing the LORD’s song In a foreign land?” ~ Psalm 137:1-4
All of Oregon has blazed and been razed and we just saw the actual sky a few days ago, for the first time in over a week. We haven’t seen clouds or shards of blue, just a flaming orange sun and a landscape muted and filtered in old Instagram-style.
I’m afraid we missed our one last hurrah of summer, buried under smoke and barricaded in our houses for a week. School has started, the leaves are fringed with fire, and the sun slips away every evening by 7:30.
It’s funny how I just wrote about my love for Oregon, all its natural beauty and clean air; funny how we give thanks for these things that are changing in the blink of an eye. Our belongings are not subject to only moths and rust that destroy, but to fire and wind and rain so hard and heavy it lifts us from our very foundations.
But it settles us, too, sifted and dropped back to earth.
And while we’ve been burning our forests and our lungs, while our firefighters have tirelessly protected our homes and our lives, Texas has overflowed and Florida has had its deluge. No Oregonian has probably ever prayed for rain and no Texan has ever longed for the sun like we all have lately, in this flip-flop of a confused world that only seems unprecedented.
The earth shakes and floods and burns and keeps turning, neglecting our pleas for reprieve. Everything is the worst thing when it’s our thing—our home and our loved ones and our favorite state park. We want attention for our disaster but it’s all a disaster, isn’t it?
Everyone in the world is experiencing trouble—some firsthand, some via sound bites and images.
The ability to feel another person’s pain keeps us from being the narcissist we all want to be, the Me-First people of abundant flesh, hanging our harps on the nearest willow and refusing a song. This may be the one good thing we’ve gained from the interwebs and constant connection: we can always reframe our current struggles in light of bigger issues going on in the world and get some perspective.
Hope can be harder to muster up than perspective, though. We can sing the happy lyrics in this place that feels foreign because the world likes happy people and we’re trying to be what they want—we’re all fine and everything is fine and you’re fine, too; but a genuine song of hope—an earth, wind, and fire of firsthand experience that back-burns and bulges and bricks our worries over with expectation, with good things coming—that song takes guts.
It’s too easy to hang our harps and sit down to weep, leaving a vacuum where despair rushes in. In place of a melody we get a malady: hopelessness. We get rusted harps that have forgotten even the melancholy songs we want.
It’s too easy to be doomsday prophets.
I keep coming back here, to the banks of the river and the exiles on the shore and this psalm that is so vivid. The imagery of the river and the harps hanging on the trees, the weeping of the people and the mocking of their oppressors—all of it is awkwardly beautiful to me, the way truth that hurts is still truth. (Have you seen the pictures—the fires glowing against the night, the animals taking refuge in the river while their world falls to ashes, the heroes in fire and water? This is the Lord’s song in our place of exile, the literal beauty in literal ashes.)
The Israelites were cared for even in their exile; we are cared for even in our exile from The World the Way We Want It. If we are disciplined, we know we are loved. If we are weathering storms, we know we’re not alone.
I’ve read this psalm over and over the last few months and every time I want to blame the children of Israel for their pouting. I want to shake them by their shoulders and point to their harps and shout, “Sing!”, but I never would do that in real life. I’m more likely to sit and pout alongside them, to fold up inside myself and wait for the storm to pass or the fire to burn out or the anger to subside. I am almost sure I have figuratively hung my harp in the willows on more than one stressful occasion.
What I want someone to do is to grab one of those harps hanging there and come up with a hopeful song, one for those who sit and weep, one for those who pout. If you’re in a hard place, isn’t that what you want, too? An encourager?
I’m praying today for us to stand up and do the work of encouraging others in their trials and troubles, finding the hope and the empathy called for in scripture. The harps are rusting.
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