Dwelling in a Strange Land

Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon-By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
We hung our harps upon the willows in their midst.
They that carried us away in captivity asked of us a song,
And they that laid us waste, required of us mirth, saying:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Psalm 136/7 provides the text that the Orthodox Church begins to sing in preparation for the Great Fast. It is a recognition that our life in this world is somehow foreign to the Kingdom of God. We don’t belong here. We sometimes experience this as a homesickness – which is strange indeed for people who have no memory of life in any other mode. But it is not an uncommon feeling.

How do we explain to others that we long for something we’ve never seen – that we sense our home is elsewhere? This is soul of the original Christian longing. Our modern world has often set this heart aside. In particular the social message of the 19th century turns the longing for Paradise into a longing for an improved world.

William Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem,” is sung at the close of the Labour Party’s annual conference each year in England. It ends:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

The modernist thought that the Kingdom of God is something that we are meant to “build” is frequently echoed in Church statements and modern prayers. “For the building up of the Kingdom” has become a modern Christian cliche. It is also heresy.

It seems ironic in the extreme that the inheritors of salvation by grace should so deeply embrace a Kingdom by works. In the name of various utopias (both Christian and Secular) great evil has been done.

The classical Christian heart is rightly found in the words of Psalm 137. We do not belong here, but we are not called to build Paradise. We are called to make the journey home and return to Paradise. This is not a renunciation of social progress or a call to turn a deaf ear to justice.

But social progress and justice are both easily betrayed by utopian schemes. In the name of an ideal, scoundrels do great evil. We will not build a society that is more just than its citizens.

We are resident aliens, strangers in a strange land. But are not yet ready to dwell in Paradise. Entering the land to which we are called is also a journey of transformation. There is a wilderness that lies between this land and the Land of Promise. The story of the Exodus is of a journey from slavery to freedom – and of slaves becoming fit for freedom.

The journey begins with the recognition that we do not belong. It is the problematic character of secularism. The secular world claims to be our home and bids us settle down. The secular Christian makes his home in this world and holds his faith like a hobby. There will be no journey that sets him apart from his neighbors. He will be like them in every respect excepting his hobby. It is as though the Israelites established clubs in Egypt for the discussion of Promised Land theories. There they could sing the songs of Zion.

I do not belong here. I will return to my Father’s house.



  1. George Engelhard says

    I’m not sure how this relates or if this relates, but there are two veiwpoints on what one can do to bring salvation to another. One is to tell them about heaven and, perhaps, at the same time, scare the hell out of them. The other, which I think is more emphasized in Orthdoxy, is to become more heaven and less hell, more light and less darkness.

  2. Boris Bruton says

    Well said, well said. I can only agree with the previous commenter, esp. with regard to the last two paragraphs. I am, by the way, a Roman Catholic, but always appreciate your words. Thank you, Fr.Stephen.

  3. Perry Lee says