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Published on:
July 14, 2020
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2 min.
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By the Rivers of Babylon

An imaginative reading of Psalm 137

Melodies of protest, lyrics of freedom.
Rachel Joy Welcher

By the rivers of Babylon we sit and weep. I scoop water into my hands and splash it over my face. Shock and ice. Relief and purity. My hands need this coolness, this shiver, for they throb under constant use. I run my fingers across the calluses that have formed. My hands ache the way my heart aches. An instrument I used to love to play now feels like a slave-driver. I strum the songs of my youth, but lately, I play them through tears.

There on the poplars we hang our harps. An act of silent protest. We will not play for you today. I look and see my sister sitting among the reeds, knees hugged to chest, rocking back and forth. She is in pain, remembering Zion. We long for freedom. The days when we were not forced to sing and dance for the very ones who killed our father. We watched him die, both of us. I will never forget the look on his face. He couldn’t breathe, but no one cared. I have written songs about this, but our tormentors demand songs of joy. 

So we sneak away to the water’s edge. We talk in whispers, laughing and crying softly. One of us begins a low hum, a song of lament. Others join, and together, our voices form a single prayer: O Lord, how long? Do not forget your people. Our songs belong to us alone. Do not leave us in exile. Do not forsake justice. We will not share them. The songs we sing when we are alone, together, cannot be sold, analyzed, or parsed for meaning, only sung in wailing harmony. Melodies of protest, lyrics of freedom. 

I know that tomorrow, I must pick up my harp again and perform for my captors. I sigh, steadying myself, patting down my hair, and massaging my hands. I wonder, how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? But they do not own my voice. I will change the words, sing in the same happy melody that keeps them pacified and charms them with my culture, but I will sing to God alone: Your kingdom come. Your sword be sharp. Your will be done. Your justice swift. Bring heaven down to earth, and soon. If I forget you, Jerusalem...I will not forget you. They will not win. 

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Rachel Joy Welcher
Rachel Joy Welcher is an editor-at-large at Fathom Magazine. She earned her Master of Letters in Bible and the Contemporary World from The University of St. Andrews. She is the author of two collections of poetry: Two Funerals, Then Easter and Blue Tarp, and has written for The Gospel Coalition, Mere Orthodoxy, RELEVANT, and The Englewood Review of Books. Her book, Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality, is coming out from InterVarsity Press in 2020. Rachel lives in Glenwood, Iowa, with her husband, Evan, and their dog, Frank. You can follow her on Twitter @racheljwelcher.

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