Singing Songs of Joy in a Foreign Land

by Marilyn on January 7, 2015

Psalm 137

In Psalm 137 the song-writer gives us a picture of a people displaced, in exile. They are by a river and they are weeping. They hang up their musical instruments and those around them shout at them to sing songs, songs of joy. Pull up your bootstraps people! Sing songs of joy. It’s not that bad!”

But the Psalmist disagrees. He says this: “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”

Many missionaries, expatriates, and third culture kids have uttered the same words. How can I sing? How can I praise? I’m displaced. I don’t like where I live. I hurt inside and no one on the outside knows. I don’t fit. I feel like an alien among humans. How can I sing?

Perhaps our unspoken fear is that If we learn to sing songs of joy in this new place, this new land, then we will forget the old, we will lose our identity, all that we know, all that is familiar. As one person put it: “I wanted to preserve my identity, to hold dear the soil in which my roots are settled, to Never Forget who I Am. After all — my identity has come at such a high cost.”

Yet this is the beauty of a God of movement, a God of place. He is not limited by geography. He created time and space, he created place, he created our place. He is the author of our identity. We are beloved characters in a story that will go on forever, a story where “every chapter is better than the one before.”* Our physical location may change, but our song can still go on. The song may change, it may become more of a song of remembrance, but it can still be a song of joy.

God does not ask us to forget. He knows that even as the missionary packs their suitcase and ventures into the unknown, there is much they need to remember, there are roots that are critically important. He knows that from birth the third culture kid was raised between worlds, that those worlds shaped who they are — not only physically and emotionally, but also spiritually. He simply asks us to move forward and trust him. Trust him with our shifting loyalties to place, trust that he will allow us to use the gifts that were so naturally used in the past, trust that the hidden talents will not be wasted. Trust that culture in all it’s complexity, and idioms with all their nuance can be learned. Trust that it is possible to love more than one place at a time, to sing songs of joy in both.

Trust that he will guide, he will protect, he will show us a way, will teach us to sing songs of joy.

And that is my prayer for you, for me in 2015: that wherever we are, we will learn to sing songs of joy in a foreign land.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
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.*

Psalm 137: 1-6

Author’s Note – this essay appears in the book Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging by Marilyn R. Gardner in the section on Grief & Loss.

*From The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.

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