Years ago the enigmatic Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman released a record entitled Stranded in Babylon. I always loved that title. Pair it with Larry Norman with his shocking long white hair, snarling voice, and prophetic stance, and you get the sense that he is (as another of his album titles proclaimed) "only visiting this planet." While not all of us may seem as visibily out of place as Larry Norman, no doubt all of us feel a sense of estrangement, even strangeness, in the world, a place we regard as home and yet a place which, at certain times and places, we profoundly sense is not in fact our true Home. We are "aliens and strangers," says the Apostle Peter, meaning we are strange and alien and ill at ease relative to the world because we belong elsewhere.
This sense came home to me dramatically in the Summer of 1988 when my wife and I visited Hungary and what was then Czechoslovakia. At that time both countries were behind the Iron Curtain of Communism. We came mostly as tourists but actually had buried in our luggage some Bibles to surreptitiously deliver to a Campus Crusade worker in Hungary who was there officially to teach English. We weren't actually aware enough to realize at that time how serious a problem this could be, were we caught. But we made it into the country and the handoff went well.
It was the third or fourth day, after a trip on a Czech train into Prague, seated across from a Communist military officer who never, never smiled, that a profound homesickness settled in, a sense that I was far. far from home among a strange people. Arriving at the train station, we could not figure out how to secure a taxi and could not use the pay telephone, and no one spoke English. It took nearly an hour to obtain a taxi, and even then we weren't confident we would make it to our hotel. I could not read the restaurant menus or even make an educated guess as to what we were ordering. English was rarely spoken. The people were melancholy in disposition, unsmiling, depressed even. The city squares and marketplaces were not bustling, lively places but seemed sad, lonely, and hopeless, even though there were historic and beautiful places to visit. The food was barely edible. In the parks, no one lounged or played on the grass. I found out later that this was because people were prohibited from congregating. There were no evident signs of faith, hope, or love. After one day of this, I was ready to go home, longing for home.
Those exiled from Judah to Babylon in the sixth century B.C. were evidently homesick. More than that, they were despairing of ever seeing Jerusalem again, and they were angry. When you curse your captors by saying "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" you're obviously upset. We cringe to think of such anger, such despair so deep that music and songs stop, that you hang your harps and lyres in trees so as not to be taunted by your captors to sing a song about the Homeland" (v. 2-3).
I doubt that most of us have ever had that deep a sense of estrangement. I haven't. But sometimes it breaks through. Jesus said "blessed are those who mourn," and we realize the depth of sin, the brokenness of the world, the hopelessness of change in the world without God. And sometimes we can't make it to the rejoinder, "for they shall be comforted," for we are not comforted, not yet anyway, or not enough, but can only say how long --- how long must all this last? How long will God tarry? How long will He allow sin to have apparent rule in the world? How long, in fact, until we are on our way from Babylon to Zion? I'm sick of sin --- my own, yours, and the whole wretched mess it makes of all Creation. I don't want to sing, play, listen to music, or do anything. I want out of here.
Oh, I'm being dramatic, I know. I rarely feel quite like that. But on ocassion I do, when I hear of something like the Virginia Tech killings, something which happens every day in certain places throughout the world. Then I may not want to hear songs and there is a veneer of gray on the world. But then, thank God, the promises begin to tap gently on the door of my mind and senses. Someone smiles at me. Someone lets me in the stream of traffic. A rabbit stops in the path and looks at me before hopping away. The breeze moves the trees ever so slightly, moves the water on the lake. Thirteen turtles are sunbathing together on a log, shell upon shell. And the color blue looks refreshingly. . . well. . . blue, like it's a new blue today.
We may not be Home, but we are not alone. And Babylon does have its pleasures.