Worship in a Foreign Land

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Psalm 137:4

Written in the context of the Babylonian exile, Psalm 137 reflects the lament of the Israelites in Babylon. The Babylonians torment the people, asking them to sing “songs of Zion,” to which the people ask about singing Lord’s song in a foreign land.

Unlike the church, the worship of Israel tied worship to a specific geographical location: the temple in Jerusalem. The Promised Land, and the temple within it, carried so much meaning that the people did not know how to sing their songs when all that had been taken away and destroyed. They had to develop new ways to sing to God.

As Christians we know that the church is not a building, but people. However, like Israel, the church imbues specific geographic locations with meaning. The church my wife and I were married in holds special meaning to me that no other church in the world does. The church in which I was baptized also holds meaning for me (albeit different from the meaning of the church I was married in). I would imagine, given enough thought, most people can think of specific geographic locations that hold special meaning.

If this was not clear to us before COVID-19, it should be a more familiar concept now. Recently, most churches in the West gathered around their computer screens for Easter worship. The spaces we normally inhabit for these special rituals remained empty. As we tried to digitally re-create these rituals the meaning felt different, or even nonexistent.

Like Israel, we tried to sing Jesus’s song in a foreign land, though not in a foreign land of exile with everything we hold precious destroyed. We sang in the foreign land of our dining room, living room, office. Our sacred spaces still stand, just locked. It felt foreign. It felt disconnected. It may not have even felt like Easter.

And not just Easter. For many weeks now, worship has been like this, and no one knows when it will return to normal. This is different than anything we have ever experienced as a church in recent memory. Rather than simply treat this time in isolation as something to just get through, trying to make the best of it, we should be looking for new ways to create sacred spaces in our homes, on our properties, in the few places we can be. Rather than singing Jesus’s song in a foreign land, let us find ways to reimagine the spaces we are in so that we can sing Jesus’s song without it feeling foreign.

Christian worship is embodied worship. We partake of physical elements when we come to the Lord’s Table. We stand, we sit, we kneel, we sing. We pass the peace through physical acts of connection with other believers. Some churches use incense to help engage all the physical senses. These physical activities are just not something nice we do for our souls. They are integral to our worship.

Paul prays that “the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Our worship is more than just a spiritual act, and even in this time of quarantine we must take seriously the fact our bodies and the physical spaces in which we worship matter.

Even after this time of quarantine is over, we have no guarantee it will not happen again. Now is the time to start reimagining the places of our encounters with God to include not-so-traditional worship spaces. Once we can gather again as a corporate body, do not let these new spaces we have created become forgotten. Continue to build meaning into the traditional and non-traditional spaces of worship we have come to know.

Reading Suggestions:

Bartholomew, Craig G. Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011.

Craft, Jennifer Allen. Placemaking and the Arts: Cultivating the Christian Life. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018.

Hess, Valerie E., and Lane M. Arnold. The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012.

McMinn, Lisa Graham. To the Table: A Spirituality of Food, Farming, and Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016.

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