Don McLean’s “American Pie” album was a staple of my teenage and young adult years. It’s still among the music that I tend to go back to in times of melancholy. The final track on the album is particularly haunting today.
By the waters, the waters of Babylon
We lay down and wept, and wept, for thee Zion
We remember thee, remember thee, remember thee Zion
We all are weeping for what was, for what the world was like before we were sent into the exile of COVID-19.
Exile is a difficult place to be. You’re haunted by memories of what was, of hopes diminished, of dreams dashed. You can’t go back but you can’t yet go forward either. When Jeremiah wrote his letter to the exiles in Babylon, they longed for what had been and dreamed of going back to that place. God instructed Jeremiah to tell them: it’s not going to happen any time soon — so shelter in place.
McLean’s Babylon captures the mood of the exiles, plaintive, haunting, longing. The lyrics are taken from Psalm 137, a song of lament, an expression of the grief of loss.
The Psalm and the song capture our current dislocation. Many (perhaps most) of us have experienced unfathomable loss: the death of family, friends, co-workers. We’ve seen the loss of a job or a business or the loss of a home. The embodied presence of friends and family who would normally walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. All are denied us at this moment.
Present day exiles call out to “reopen the state, reopen the nation.” They are demanding a return to what was. Like the children of Israel in Babylon, we will never return to what was. We must realize that demanding to go back, to open up to what was, we risk prolonging the exile, mounting loss upon loss.
God’s instructions to those exiles are powerful words for us today:
“Seek the welfare of the place where I have sent you! In its welfare you will find your welfare. Don’t pay attention to those who offer you false promises of going back to what was, for it is a lie that they tell you in my name. I did not send them … (when the time is right) I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare … to give you a future with hope.”
For us right here, right now, to seek the welfare of the place God has sent us means to continue social distancing. For those of us who have no choice but to go to work, that means wearing a mask when we’re out in public. It means paying close attention to hygiene.
We’re in this together. The stark truth is that we can endure this exile together or we can prolong our exile by demanding our wants and desires be met, regardless of the impact upon the city. What will we do?