Bittersweet symphony

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD: "For He is good, for His mercy endures forever toward Israel." Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.

But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off. (Ezra 3:10-13)

In this time in Israel's history, the people have begun to return from their captivity under the Babylonian and Persian empires. Some fifty years ago, the Babylonians had invaded Jerusalem for the last time, had destroyed the city walls and all the major buildings, and had taken special care to destroy Solomon's temple, block by block. This temple, though frequently sadly neglected, filled with idols, and disrespected, was Israel's identity. The Psalms of Ascent all point to the temple, as the people went up three times a year for the Passover, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. People spoke of going up to Jerusalem, regardless of where they were coming from; the city mountain, with the temple at the top, was the pinnacle of their nation.

Psalm 137:1-6 says:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down; yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, and those who plundered us requested mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" How shall we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to my mouth--if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy.
This is how the Jews felt about Jerusalem, while they lived in exile, in Babylon. When they came back to their land, many (most?) of them had never seen it as it once was for their fathers. They hadn't seen Solomon's temple, with the walls inlaid with precious stones and coated with gold. They hadn't seen the giant bronze pillars, or the bronze Sea with the twelve bulls underneath it--more bronze than could be weighed out and counted (Jer. 52:20). They hadn't seen it. All they would have known was what they had heard in stories.

But some had seen it. The old men remembered the gleam of the bronze, once cleaned and repaired. They had seen the platform on which Solomon had once stood, had walked up the steps and smelled the sacrifices, had heard the silver trumpets and the harps.

These people wept when they saw the foundation of the new temple laid down. They wept for past glory, lost forever--wept because the present looked less marvelous. They wept because the old temple was in the past, and they would never get the past back.

I feel for these guys. As Proverbs says, "The heart knows its own bitterness, and a stranger does not share its joy" (14:10), and "Even in laughter the heart may sorrow, and the end of mirth may be grief" (14:13). As the passage above in Ezra says, "The people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people." So many emotions, so intertwined, and in a time of renewing, at that.

Several years ago, a lady named Melanie came to chapel at my seminary. We spoke after chapel, and I talked to her about how I had absolutely no clue about the future--it was wide open, and I could have ended up anywhere. It terrified me. Her response: "What a great adventure--you could go anywhere." I've found myself perplexed by her response more than once in the years since. I feel as if, in many ways, I back through life, looking back at Zimbabwe and the grief of leaving, at never really feeling at home in the States afterward, at so many schools in so many years, never having a solid community or group of friends. I look back at my time in Canada, when I really found myself making a home of sorts, investing in a community. I still never hung anything on the walls of my apartment. To me, every new step comes with an admixture of anticipation, hope, despair, and grief.

I imagine that, as the builders laid the new foundation stones of the temple, that the elders looked and thought, "It will never be as beautiful as it was before. It will never be the same." But the truth was that it was never that beautiful. Solomon had it built, and during the remaining years of his life he built temples to the gods of his wives. Not many generations after, kings from Solomon's blood built sheds for prostitutes inside the very walls where only priests were to go. Kings set statues of other gods up for adoration in the place that was to be holy to God's name. The temple had endured years of abuse from many, many hands and had been defiled in countless ways. The people had so defied God that He couldn't leave them to be as they were; as He had restarted the earth in the flood, so He restarted His people with years of captivity. The old temple was defiled and torn down; only a new one would do.

The thing was, whether the people laid a new foundation or not, the old temple was already gone for good. It was part of the past; nothing could be done with that. What was happening that day, though, was that the people were taking their first, halting steps into a future. Life had to go on; worship had to go on.

What I am hoping and praying for as I think about this is that I don't want to back into the future anymore. I want to walk into the future, embracing the life to come, living in worship rather than bitterness and grief.  I know that I will probably always face a welter of emotions as I accept the nomadic life I've entered, but I want to be like Melanie and see the adventure ahead--see the newness and the promise ahead. I'm struggling with this right now; I had a conversation with my mom last week, and she told me that, if I do end up here in Mexico longer-term, it's time to make a clean break and really make it my home. I don't know how to do that, exactly; I told my friend last night that it only looks like a way to end up hurting even more if (in my mind, when) I have to leave, and I don't want to open myself to the pain. Investment takes a certain amount of trust, and I am very reluctant to trust. But I do want worship to go on, and that does mean trusting.

Prayer requests
  • Please pray for wisdom going forward in this journey, and for healing--a genuine about-face, not backing into the future anymore, but walking face into the wind, with my back to the past.
  • Please pray for this week and what it holds. Pray for open doors for the gospel, especially with the English class. On Thursday evening a neighbor lady has invited us over to learn how to make a yoghurt-strawberry gelatin dessert. Pray for wisdom in the conversations that come up in that time, and that God would open hearts.
  • Friday and Saturday we're having a pajama party for some of the preteens from the church. Please pray for that to be really good and encouraging for them.
  • On the 20th and 21st of September, the youth from CPdD are presenting a skit about the Prodigal Son in two different neighborhoods. It's been like herding cats to get any of it together; we've had a different group every time we've gone over this and practiced it. Please pray for teenagers to show up and show out for this. Pray that they'd really get a vision for reaching out to people, and that they'd invest in it.
  • We're planning on having a workshop on making disciples in October for the teenagers. Please be praying for that.
  • By way of follow-up, the girl L who we met with last Sunday has been texting my friend from time to time, but it's really not clear what she's about. Please pray for a real spiritual hunger in her life.
  • I haven't gotten to go back to the Aztec dancer lady's restaurant yet. Please pray for wisdom in how to follow up with that.
  • I had a really great time hanging out with the teenage girl last Wednesday. We walked, and I asked her to tell me about her life. She talked about a bunch of stuff, then she just kept asking what else I'd like to know. Finally I asked her to tell me how she had met Jesus. She got so excited and animated, and she talked for easily an hour about the changes she's already seen in her life and about what she's learning. She's devouring her Bible, as far as I can tell, and she's memorizing verses and really letting God speak to her. Please pray for her; she's the only believer in her family, and that's a big deal.
  • I had a really nice conversation on Saturday with the neighbor's daughter, who's a year older than me. Got to talk to her about Jesus. She said she'd like to hang out with me when she's in town this weekend. Please pray for that

Thank you for praying!

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