Friday, May 10, 2013

By the rivers of Babylon . . .

     After taking Jerusalem in 597 BCE, Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II deported much of the leadership of Judah to Babylon.  There were three deportations over a fifteen year period, and those Jews remained in exile for about sixty years. They were allowed to return to their homeland when Cyrus the Persian defeated the Babylonians.
     Most of us can only barely imagine how traumatic this exile must have been.  Not only were the exiles taken from their land, their livelihood and (perhaps) their friends and family.  They were torn from their religious center as well.  The temple in Jerusalem was the focal point of their religion. Many rites and rituals were done primarily there.  How, in such circumstances, could they go on?  It is no wonder that a psalmist wrote:

   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?

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
(Ps 137.1-2, 4, 8)

       Yet, to those people, to that psalm-writer, God had a different message, delivered through the prophet Jeremiah.  A letter to the exiles read:  

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.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But 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.  (Jer 29.4-7)

Puzzling on many counts.  First, God sent the exiles to Babylon.  Second, there's a strong suggestion that the exiles had better prepare for a long stay.  And, third, they are to "seek the welfare of the city" where they had been sent.
       Into a new situation the people had been delivered.  And in that new situation they were to discover means, not only to survive, but to thrive.*  And, apparently they did, since biblical scholars will point to the Babylonian Captivity as a time of great creativity.
       I have spent the last few days at a clergy conference in Breckenridge.  The speaker referenced the Jeremiah passage at the beginning of his first talk, and I've been chewing on the implications ever since.  I constantly find myself in new, unsettling, circumstances and, like the psalmist, I often respond by digging my heels in, refusing to adapt, dreaming of retribution.  And that generally results in anger, frustration and lack of any real productivity.  I know I'm not alone in this, as I read about similar responses by individuals, groups, and countries all the time.
       The world, however, has an annoying habit of always being in flux; nothing stays constant.  Religious folks might attribute that change to the activity of God.  Certainly that's the implication in Jeremiah's letter to the exiles.  And, so, the question before me/us is whether we get with the "drift" of the rivers of Babylon, or, rather, throw in an anchor, fight the current and wear ourselves down.  This is, course, akin to the "watercourse way" of Taoism.  But it also reflective of the Buddhist teachings of being present NOW, not in the past, nor in the future.  Be aware of what is going on and live fully into that reality.  This isn't so much a question of acculturation as it is of recognizing new opportunities and capitalizing on them.


Chaplain Gary

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