How Can We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land?

Willow treeThis is the question the Psalmist asks. This is the question for all Christians in our post-Christian world. This is the question I ask myself all the time.

Last week I ran into a wonderful little Psalm that speaks so beautifully to this challenge.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept
as we remembered Zion.
On the willow trees there we hung up our lyres,
for there those who had carried us captive
asked us to sing them a song,
our captors called on us to be joyful:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
Psalms 137: 1-4 (REB)

I grew up thinking the foreign land must be the lands at the farther reaches of the globe. This is what we called the “mission field.” This was missionary work, to be singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.

But how things have changed. The Christian movement is exploding all over the world — ironically in those mission fields of old, in Asia, Africa, Latin America, India — while in Europe and America, we live in a decidedly post-Christian world.

As Christians, we find ourselves in a foreign land in our own land, needing to translate our story in new language. It is as if we woke up one morning and found ourselves asking how we speak effectively, in our own language, when most everyone suddenly seems to speak in another tongue? How do we carry ourselves as foreigners, captives, so that people at least hear our story? How do we sing our beautiful song? How do we translate our language?

In my book Engaging the Culture, Changing the World: The Christian University in a Post-Christian World, I quote James Davison Hunter on just this topic: “Ours is now, emphatically, a post-Christian culture,” he says, “and the community of Christian believers are now, more than ever — spiritually speaking — exiles in a land of exile.” We must “come to terms with this exile.”

How do we come to terms with exile? I have come to believe this is a critically important posture for us to define and understand and adopt. How do we live as exiles in our own land?

This extraordinary Psalm is packed tight with tension and surprise. We find ourselves by the “rivers of Babylon,” and we remember another time, a better time. We sit down and weep, because we know something profoundly important has been lost.

And we are tempted to hang up our harps in the willow trees. We are ready to give up singing our song. In fact, since our story is so often under attack, or neglect, we are often not even sure we believe in the beauty of our own song. We’re not sure we remember our song.

But then the big surprise of this poem: Suddenly we sense that the culture is actually asking us to “sing them a song.” Perhaps grown weary and exhausted, the culture is actually calling us “to be joyful.” The culture actually asks us to “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

Wow, what an opportunity. Are we ready? Do we remember our song well enough to sing it beautifully? Do we even know how to sing our song for our own time? “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” — this is the task for the Christian in our time.