Growing up, I would at different times ask my mom, “what was the best time of your life?” I asked her this question repeatedly, year after year, I suppose always waiting to hear something different. Every single time, she’d reply, “well, my life is pretty good right now.” I just knew though, that there had to be another answer—I figured that the best time of her life had to be when she was a smooth-skinned twenty year old, her potential yet unhampered by kids and the weight of domesticity. Or maybe it was another time. Whatever the case, the best time of her life couldn’t be right then—why would it be? She always seemed to be eluding the question by not telling me about a time that lived on, resplendent in her memory, as the BEST time of her life.
Why was I so intent on pinpointing a better time in her life? Why could I hardly believe her when she told me, without fail, no matter what, “my life is pretty good right now”?
The psalms and lamentations for today are about the anguish of exile and the bitterness of remembering Zion. Psalms 137 tells how the Jewish people, during the Babylonian exile, sat by the bank of the river weeping in remembrance of Zion. They are devastated to be in a foreign land, so far from their customs, their people, the geography and hillsides of their youth. Nothing feels right in the new place, and they are mocked and tormented. They are aliens. And yet it is clear that (they) suffers from the fear of forgetting their beloved homeland, Jerusalem, because he pledges that his right hand will forget its skill and his tongue will stick to the roof of his mouth if he forgets Jerusalem. Jerusalem is so precious, so valued, so golden, yet it can be forgotten. One can become inured, I suppose, to the new alienation. One could be an outcast and a slave for so long that it is hard to remember what freedom was like. This act of forgetting Zion is dangerous because it is truly possible to become docile in slavery and exile. Remembering is so important as to be salvific.
Yet memory is a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Remembering good things might be an important precondition for recovering them—or allowing them to be and finding them—but that remembering—if we understand it as a constant juxtaposition to what is NOW, can poison our todays.
Lamentations 1:1-6 is a remembrance that gives us a fuller picture of the degree of devastation that Zion has suffered. The city, once a queen, is now a slave. She is dogged by relentless tormenters with no one to comfort her. She is used to betrayal and hard labor. Whereas once she was full of hope and brimming with success, she is now beleaguered and easily manipulated.
The earth feels this way to me—a queen torn apart, betrayed, shorn of all adornment. A queen, once ruler over all, debased, made low, disrespected.
It is easy, very easy, to fall into a pit when contemplating the golden eras of our lives or our country or our world or the state of humanity. The devastations are so profound that wearing sackcloth and smearing soot on our bodies might be appropriate. Weeping by the rivers and refusing to sing would be appropriate. But we must not forget how things should be; we must not stop longing for how they should be. To do so would be to become content in a slave’s life.
I’d venture to say that at least in this new millennium, we are generally good at being aware and good at remembering, at least relative to prior times in history. The word “woke” describes this awareness, in the parlance of our times. Of course there is a lot of work yet to do, but in some ways, we have gotten very good at routing out and exposing injustices, both on the micro and macro levels. We have sworn to not forget, lest our tongues stick to the roofs of our mouths.
We do not forget all over the place—we do not forget on Facebook, or in news reporting. We make signs to announce that we do not and will not forget. We talk to our significant others and tell them we will not, cannot forget better times or golden moments or those times deep in the past when everything seemed right between us. We do not forget what it was like to be a child, blissfully ignorant of the impending demands that the world would make of us as adults—demands of our gender, our sexual preferences, our earning capabilities, our status in society. We do not forget how the pull of cultures we’ve found ourselves ensnared in over the years has torn and ravaged the deepest conceptions of our identity. We have lived enough years now that we have nearly forgotten what it was like to not know that our most precious resource, our time, was running out. We have nearly forgotten but not quite.
We have not forgotten. And because we have not forgotten, we feel, very acutely, the pains of exile. All of us here know the knife-turn of exile. You can feel exiled in your marriage, you can feel exiled from your race or gender or culture or ethnic group. You can feel exiled in your church and betrayed by faith.
One of the very worst things about exile is the simultanaeity of remembering Zion and knowing that you can never go back. Or—you can go back to the place of Zion, but it will never, ever be the same. It is a constant and enduring loss.
((The most basic problem in marriage is one that is rarely explained at the outset. Most people’s vows revolve around loving the other person in sickness and health, through bad times and good times. But those vows don’t prepare you for what inevitably lies ahead, which is disjunct on some level. What those vows get wrong is that they suggest that the hard part of marriage is the hardship that external conditions will inevitably present given the march of time. But the real hardship of marriage is enduring poverty and sickness and wealth and health and –any condition at all– without love. If you both have love, can’t you get through anything—the worst poverty and the most debilitating sickness? Won’t love save you? Maybe vows should say, “I will love you when I don’t love you, when we’re fighting, and when we disagree, and when we’re ready to throw in the towel, I will love you still.” But that would be crazy and no one can speak to what they don’t know, and how would one love when one doesn’t anyway? Saying, “I will not or cannot love” is indicating that you are in a place of exile. You say it in a lonely wasteland or from a dark pit. I’m not trying to make any statement about marriage or divorce here, but am using this to illustrate what I think about belief in God when you’re exiled. But I think belief in God works similarly: the hardest part about it is not in believing in God when times are good or bad, but the hardest part is believing when you feel exiled or betrayed or maybe, when you just feel a void. The hardest part is believing when you don’t believe.))
There are two kinds of exile—or separation from Zion—in the way I’m thinking about it. One is had by people who have known Zion before and live in bitter remembrance. There are others, though, who can’t quite pinpoint what they’re missing because they never lived in Zion before, but they know that they’re not there now. People like an old highschool friend I saw last week would fit into that category.
The melancholy he had in highschool had bloomed into a debilitating adult existential angst. As a child, he was raised without the benefit of religion and was always very cynical about the whole deal. That was still his perspective, I could tell, and yet he also admitted enough to suggest that he felt utterly hollow on the inside. He appeared ravaged by time, a shell of a person, unable to find much pleasure in anything. He told me, his voice heavy with the acknowledgement that he was not proud of what he was about to say, that all week he lived for the 3 second beer bong that he and his buddies pulled off at the end of the football tailgate party –after averting the eyes of the children who were present. What is it really all about?, he wondered.
I’ve had wealthy, non-religious clients at the end of their ropes threaten to disappear because they can’t take it anymore—what is it about, just buying more houses? Working day in and day out—for what? What’s the point? This is exile without ever tasting Zion. This is aimless wandering in a wasteland. This is what it looks like to die of thirst but not know that water exists. They are searching for Zion but don’t know it.
It’s possible to exile your own self from Zion. I was a philosophy major at the Christian college I went to. I would faithfully attend chapel all week, but over time, I drastically curtailed my emotional expression in Chapel. I wanted to see with clear eyes and proceed with the cool rationalism that I was learning to equip myself with; I didn’t want to be emotionally manipulated by the worship songs and I didn’t want to be a blubbering buffoon. Very intentionally, I siphoned off the well of my spirit and made myself numb to the pricking of my conscious and all the tugs on my heart that I previously interpreted as God’s touches. I wanted to proceed rationally, with eyes open to the world—I’d feed my mind and distrust the spirit. The heart could so easily be stupid and wrong, but my mind would know better. I know that there’s no easy dichotomy to be had here, and that that at a certain point thinking of the spirit and mind as mutually exclusive or at least compartmentalized doesn’t make any sense…blah blah blah. What I’ve come to discover over time and with much practice is that when you feed the mind and ignore the spirit you can very easily be a hollow, self-centered jackass. You can find yourself cut off from Zion almost by accident, or even with good intentions. You can wake up and find yourself in a wasteland longing for Zion, realizing that something, something, something is deeply wrong here.
The anguish of remembering Zion and realizing that this ain’t it is acute. Much of the work of social justice that we do here requires this remembering. And it hurts so much that we have to binge watch Netflix at night and eat and drink junk just to escape the awful reality of how raped and pillaged Zion is. We indulge in so many other self-mutilations to punish ourselves for a past we can’t grapple with and a future we can’t realize. Remembering that things are not what they should be is necessary but painful work. It hurts to watch a queen turn into a beggar.
We can feel the depths of despair felt by the author of lamentations and psalms. In Lamentations 3, the writer describes his soul as “downcast within me” when he remembers “my affliction and my wandering, my bitterness and my gall.” He is on the precipice, in danger of being consumed and cannibalized by his own grief. We know these feelings, don’t we? Some of us here really do.
Thankfully, that is not the end of the story.
How does one avoid being consumed by the importance of not forgetting? We are told,
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for her compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
It makes sense that if one finds herself exiled from Zion and remembering what was good, that she would think of herself as bereft. Left alone, adrift. But oddly enough, a person who is exiled is not necessarily forgotten or forsaken. For love is the undercurrent of every universe we find ourselves in, but it lies in the depths, on the floor of the ocean, while the tempests rage on the surface. Love is always and forever there— every morning we have to put on our gear to prepare to dive down to find it, but it will be there. If we don’t remember to do the work of diving deep to feed ourselves from the well, the source of all good things including Zion, we will find ourselves splashing in the shallows, wondering why, after so much good TV and food, we feel so hollow.
Once you are exiled from Zion, you can never go back. But the Christian life is full of surprise and irony. It teaches us that there is always water in the desert, that God speaks through sinners the most, and that when you are lost you are found.
The important business of not forgetting and of doing the good work of social justice is only really sustainable by allowing ourselves to also be swallowed up by god’s love…every. Single. Day. I love the line, “they are new every morning” because this speaks to the continuity of god’s love and compassion. It is not just bitterness and gall that are ongoing—love and compassion too are refreshed every morning, one day at a time.
I think I always asked my mom when the best time of her life was because I was just waiting to catch her—waiting for that confirmation that she was wandering, in exile, bereft of finer times. I guess I wanted to know that yes, life would eventually stink for me too. My mother has always been a better Christian than me. She is no stranger to hardship and she doesn’t live with rose-colored glasses—she’s worked with undergraduates for over two decades now and have seen levels of depravity that couldn’t be depicted legally in the movies. But I suspect that my mother was always, time after time, able to suggest that “now is the best time of my life” because she has spent every morning and every day of her life wearing down a path to her soul’s well. She has not forgotten, with all the other not forgetting that she does, that she is not forsaken. She is not “overcome” because she has not forgotten that the undercurrent of love and the source of all things is everywhere, always. She has made a habit of diving deep to find it. I bring her up one last time not at all to argue that we should be able to say things are all ok right now (which is not how she operates either) but to say that we cannot do the important work of not forgetting if we forget to feed ourselves real and sustaining food every day.
My challenge—for myself, but follow along if it seems applicable to you—is to do the important and sometimes difficult work of diving deep to seek out the refreshing undercurrents of love and compassion every morning. Instead of splashing in the shallows at night, dive at night too if you need to. What does that look like for you? When was the last time your soul felt full and fresh? When did you feel God’s love permeate and fill you, when did you feel overwhelmed with compassion? What did you do? Can you do that more often? Every morning and every day, perhaps? Even if you are in the wilderness, morning comes with every new day.