On The Willows

Psalm 137 is about the Babylonian Exile. The Babylonians rampaged through the Mediterranean area. Archaeological findings show that Jerusalem was sacked around 586 BCE with walls broken down and the city plundered. Estimates range from 24,000 to 250,000 Israelites forced into exile for 70 years.[1]

The newly exiled arrive in Babylon. They sit by the rivers and weep. They hang their harps on the willows.  Their captors taunt them, asking them to sing. They just can’t do it. The Psalm ends in anger. “Happy shall they be who pay you back for what you have done to us. Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks.”

Some might find it shocking that these words of revenge are in the Bible. I think it’s a very human thing. If you start with the humanity of the text, you’ll be surprised by the divinity.

This is the deep grief of loss. The Israelites have lost their home. Jerusalem lays in ruin, and they don’t know how long they’ll be in the clutches of the Babylonians. In this Psalm we see the first two stages of grief. Psychologists laid out these stages around 50 years ago, thanks to the work of Elizabeth Kubler Ross.[2] The first stage is denial and isolation. The Israelites can’t believe they are in exile. They want to be left alone. They hang their harps. The second stage is anger. We’ve heard those in the closing verses of the Psalm.

Nehemiah is heir to that grief. He has only known exile. Shock and anger are renewed in him when he asks for a report on his fellow Jews who escaped captivity and returned to Jerusalem. The report is not positive: Those Jews face great trouble and shame. The city of Jerusalem is broken down, and the gates are destroyed from when the Babylonians first wrecked it. There’s been no improvement, no new construction. It’s just travesty and tragedy for that city and those living there. This news causes Nehemiah to weep and pray to God.

His prayer also shows the first stage of grief. He isolates himself in prayer and fasting for days, trying to come to grips with the news. We often do the same. The Great Lakes Psychology group writes, “we may isolate ourselves to avoid reminders of the truth. Others who wish to comfort us may only make us hurt more while we are still coming to terms with the loss.”[3]

Nehemiah asks for a return from exile to Jerusalem and pray, “Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” Nehemiah then remarks how he was the cupbearer to the king. This is an exalted role. A table servant is a favorite and trusted official who makes sure the king isn’t poisoned. Nehemiah would also run tasks and act as a personal assistant to the king.

Nehemiah grieves for his people. He has heard the stories of the glory of Zion. He has kept his Jewishness in the midst of being in Babylon. Identity was very important in this time. The Jewish community was very focused on not being assumed into the Babylonian culture. They tried to keep distinct in their manner of clothing and diet. This is important when you’re going through exile. Keep a focus on the pillars that make your community unique. There’s an element of belonging in keeping with those practices.

In Nehemiah’s prayer we also hear another aspect of the anger stage of grief. It’s the self-directed anger of having done something to bring the grief upon ourselves. “We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statues, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses…”

I hear this a lot. If only I had done x,y,z then I wouldn’t be in this state. I wouldn’t have lost this. I wouldn’t have had to move. I wouldn’t have caused my loved one this illness. If I had done this, then they wouldn’t have died.

The shock and anger stages of grief are the roughest. We are raw and numb at the same time. It feels like there is no emotion and then such intensity of emotion, we can barely handle it. Nehemiah grounds himself in prayer. Prays to the God of his ancestors, thinks about the story of Moses and the tradition of his people.

Nehemiah is one who is deep in grief. Generational grief. 70 years of longing of his people to leave Babylon and return to their homeland. Maybe the anger, the wish of revenge has faded from Psalm 137, but the harps are still silent on the willows.

When you’re in grief, there is a pause. We hang harps on the willows. We refrain from doing certain things. What is hanging silently on your willows? What do you refrain from doing when you’re in grief? And grief isn’t just when someone dies; it can be any loss. Job loss. Loss of friendship. A change in tradition. Questioning your faith. Feeling lost and unanchored.

This past week, the Medina City School Board met and was swamped with grief. I have heard there was a lot of anger in that meeting. Theologian Rob Bell states that “few things stifle the imagination than ungrieved grief.”[4] People were angry and acted out at that meeting due to their ungrieved grief. They can’t imagine anything than what’s behind. We can’t go backwards, we can only go forward.

Things have changed. It’s an anxious time, and we’re in grief that we can’t do the things we once did. There’s a new calculus and we’re getting mixed messages from our leaders. There’s a lot of distrust and misinformation in the air. We have to factor things in we never had to before. If we go out to eat, is it take out or do they have a patio? We have hung our masks on the willow only to have to take them back off and wear them again. And that causes grief, and the first two stages are shock and anger.

Witnessing that school board meeting, all the anger, may have caused some of us to go right back into shock and grief over what we have come to. What we’ve been reduced to. And we get angry all over again, and we’re trapped in the cycle of grief.

This is where we need our spiritual disciplines. Daily Devotionals are so vital in this time. Spending time in prayer or reading religious books or praying with the Upper Room. There’s a wonderful book that the Rev. Neall Sadler used to give out, and I have continued this practice. Martha W. Hickman’s Healing After Loss is a great meditation of working through grief.

There are simple practices like the Lectio Divina. Open your Bible, and read a selected passage. Then you re-read it and see if any part or verse sticks out. Then you focus on the verse and meditate on it. Often, when I do the Lectio reading, that verse comes back to me in the day. As I did a Lectio reading on the Nehemiah passage the verse, “I will gather them from there and bring them to the place which I have chosen to establish my name” stood out. As I was reading this, it was also the first day of school for Hobby Horse Preschool. The building was filling up with our preschoolers. The parents and little students were excited and our parking lot was humming.

Then many of you came to visit. Some of you were out working on the landscape. Others were dropping off things here. Others just stopped by to say hi. I will gather them to the place I have chosen to establish my name. For over 200 years, this has been a place to gather.

And we’ve gathered. Even when we were uncertain we gathered on the livestream and Zoom. We masked up and gathered in real time. We gathered for Vespers, bible studies, and book reviews. We confirmed our class, and we’re starting that back up again this year, that’s coming off the willows after being hung up for a year.

We are still gathering. It’s good to go back through our Facebook page and look at all the pictures of what we have done. Sometimes in grief we forget all that we have done. And we’ve done a lot church. And we’re going to do a lot more.

This worship series is entitled Rebuild. The Mission Team hopes to raise $5,000 for Habitat for Humanity. They will sell shirts. We will gather our time, talent, and treasure to rebuild engagement here in the church. We have our ministry fair after worship in the east room and downstairs to remind you of all the ways we welcome, love, and serve here. Sign up for a team that you’re interested in.

May we open our holy imaginations as we rebuild with the example of Nehemiah and our ancestors of faith. Sometimes the best thing we can do when we’re in grief is to gather together with friends safely, and tell stories.  To remind ourselves of all that we’ve done, all that we’re doing, to welcome, love, and serve. Yes, there are things hung on the willows that may or may not be taken down; but we also have a table before us. And our cups overflow.

Works Cited

[1][1] “Exile,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, page 439

[2] Her seminal work On Death and Dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy & their own families is a beloved classic on the five stages of grief.

[3][3] https://www.greatlakespsychologygroup.com/blog/5-stages-grief/

[4][4] The Robcast, “There’s a Lot of Water in the Water” July 23, 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *