By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion…. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Psalms 137:1,4)
For ten years, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, my Houston family would drive to celebrate with my Mississippi family. I can remember packing the car and driving over with so much anticipation of having a great time telling stories, cooking, eating, resting, and doing the same all over again.
A few days ago, I joined a support group where each participant had lost someone whose mental illness had contributed to their death. After making introductions to the new people, the leader of the group asked if anyone wanted to discuss anything. After some hesitancy, someone said, “Our son committed suicide last spring. This will be our first Thanksgiving without him. How can we possibly celebrate when there will be this big empty place at our table?”
As I watched the tears roll down the cheeks of many on the call, I thought of today’s scripture. The context for these sad words is that the Jews had just been conquered by the Babylonians, the temple—God’s House—had just been burnt to the ground, and the best and brightest and most capable were being exiled to what they thought was a God-forsaken country. On their long and lonely march, they sat down and wept, for they didn’t think they could sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. If they couldn’t sing to the Lord, how would they pray, how would they give thanks, how would they know who they were and whose they were. They were worried that if they stopped singing, they would stop living.
When we lose a loved one, it can feel like we are in exile. We can feel dazed and disoriented; we wonder how we came to this foreign place; we can question how this loss could have happened (this may be especially true for parents who lose a child); we can worry that we won’t know how to carry on without this person—often a spouse—we have been living with, eating with, and sleeping with. And given all the pain that the loss brings, it can feel like we will never be able to celebrate again, sing again, or have joy again.
A couple of weeks ago, I shared that my uncle’s death took me right back to my mother’s death and, most painfully, to my daughter’s death. And then, as I thought about having Thanksgiving this year, I had a hard time seeing how to be thankful with a big piece of my heart missing. Although I didn’t always get to see Anna on Thanksgiving the last several years, we always talked, and I always said I was thankful she was in the world, thankful for her many gifts, thankful to be her Dad, and thankful she was my daughter.
If I only focus on missing Anna, I will not be able to sing the Lord’s song of thanksgiving this year. Although I believe that Jesus wants us to honor whatever we are going through because He wants us to be honest with ourselves and with Him, I also believe He wants us to find a way to sing the Lord’s song wherever we are and through whatever we are facing.
When the Jews sat down by the waters of Babylon to weep, where is God? Right there with them. They may not have been able to discern God’s presence, but God was on the lonely march with them.
When we weep, when we lose a person we love, when we feel so much pain we don’t know how to carry on, where is God? Right there with us. With the Lord at our side, there is no foreign land. With the Lord as our brother, friend, and savior, there is no exile. With Jesus within us and around us, songs of praise will be given.
A few years ago, Lucy and I were invited to attend a Passover Seder. As about forty of us were beginning to sit down, I saw the empty chair that the Jews always put out for Elijah—this is the one who appears in troubled times, who brings the promise of relief, who lifts up the downcast, who plants hope in the hearts of the downtrodden, and who may just be bringing the Messiah to them.
This year for Thanksgiving, may I suggest that we leave an empty chair—not for Elijah, but for Jesus. If we have lost someone this year, or any year, may I suggest that we leave room for them as well? If leaving an empty chair may not be practical (some of us may run out of chairs), then may we see them in our mind’s eye and include them in our hearts.
We need to remember that our feasts here on this earth are a practice run for the feasting we will ultimately have with Jesus and with all those who have gone before. The host of the feast, Jesus, wants us to trust that death is not an end but a beginning and that the gap between this world and the next is being closed.
With that hope, with that joy before us, we can be thankful, and we can sing the Lord’s song, even though and even beyond the grief we may be bringing to our celebrations this week. As we consider leaving a chair out for those who are no longer with us in this life, let us hold fast that they have already laid aside a chair for us in the next.
- How do you sing the Lord’s song?
- If you more consciously or deliberately remembered that Jesus is the Host for all of your feasting, how might your celebrations be changed?
- As you consider leaving an empty chair—if not physically, then in your mind and heart—for those who have gone before, who do you want to invite?