Speak of ‘strange land’ and musicos will immediately think of the great, anthemic album by Keane. Older people (ahem) might recall an echo of Boney M or, even, Don McLean, both of whole recorded versions of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’. And anyone who wonders where that came from will remember that it comes from Psalm 137.

What do you do when your world falls apart? What can it look like when everything you assume to be ‘that’s just how it is’ collapses and, amid the disorientation, you find yourself living in a different country, looking out at different horizons and listening to different languages?

Well, we don’t have to face this for the first time when the great virus brings the world to a halt and changes the way we live, relate, touch, hear and smell … possibly for ever. As usual, the resources go back a long way – like 3,000 years in the Middle East.

The people have been exiled from the land that gives them history, identity and meaning. They now live in a strange land where their oppressors have a laugh at them: “If your God is so powerful, what are you doing sitting on our river banks and looking so miserable? Go on – sing us the songs of you cosmic God who appears to have been defeated by our tribal deity!” That’s the scenario. Everything that gave the people meaning and identity swept away to be replaced by bewilderment and fear, any future looking radically different and totally unwelcome.

Now, exile in Babylon, subject to an alien and oppressive empire, is not quite the same as being grounded by a virus. But, what many people are now experiencing is. The end of a way of life. The prospect of having to change the way we live and move and have our being in a world that we thought was familiar. Wondering how to fill time when the normal contours have been wiped out. Questioning what we are for when the things into which we had invested such meaning have dropped out of the picture.

It now begins to sound more familiar, doesn’t it?

Well, Psalm 137 is really uncomfortable. These people have both a loving memory of home – of how life used to be – and a recognition that they would now have to live differently. In this strange land they would need to get their bearings, find a way of life, then shape a different future. And while doing it they would have to re-think the resources their story held for them, re-imagine what their (land-rooted) faith now meant, and begin to sing new songs without forgetting the songs of home.

My chapel this morning. The light shines in and the darkness will not have the last word.

I think this is going to be the task for our times – for Christians, of course, but, actually, for everyone. Stripped back to the bare bones, why do we think we are here and why do we think we matter? How do we cope with mortality and contingency … even before we get to morality? How, then, shall we live?

Psalm 137 ends with a horror prayer: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us. Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” Embarrassing? No – essential. The psalmist doesn’t vindicate the ethic; he expresses the emotion. In other words, tell God the truth. Don’t pretend to say “hallelujah” when your heart says “shit”.

Prayer in these days can become an expression of honesty that compels us to face the truth about ourselves – our rank selfishness in stockpiling, for example? The prayer might change over time as we seek to live faithfully in a strange land. But, it must always be rooted in reality and honesty, exposing us to the possibility of change and transformation as we learn to trust that the God of the past will be faithful in a different future – that the strange land might even become a familiar home.

Buddy_HollyWhen Buddy Holly died in a plane crash on 3 February 1959 the young songwriter Don McLean wrote his searing and enigmatic tribute, American Pie. (This was one of the songs I was doing when I was arrested for busking on the Paris Metro when I was 20.) The death of Holly was the ‘day the music died’.

john_lennonWhen John Lennon was shot on 8 December 1980 a part of my adolescent life closed down. I had grown up in Liverpool with the Beatles as the soundtrack companion and we were still hoping for some sort of reunion one day. The angry resentments of Lennon would never now mature into new avenues of musical creativity and poetry. Something died with Lennon.

Last night Michael Jackson died at 50 – 10 years older than Lennon and 28 years older than Buddy Holly was when he passed away. It is perhaps not surprising that the dominant mood in the media this morning is focused on the sadness of Jackson’s lonely life. It almost feels like a mercy that this troubled man has been released from a life that brought him a host of personal problems and public humiliations.

Michael Jackson was bullied by his father, propelled into stardom and fame before he even reached his teens and even seemed to spend the rest of his life trying to recover the phantom of a missed childhood. The wonder of his music and dancing was always overshadowed by the prurience of a public that loved to build up the artist and humiliate the man.

When Jackson announced his intention to attempt yet another career revival with fifty concerts in London, I wasn’t the only one to think this was ridiculous. No surprise, then, that they began to get cancelled before they even began. But the speed with which tickets were sold at least gave the hope that Jackson might be wanted more for his music than the stories of weirdness that always accompanied him.

Jackson won the spoils of stardom, but he also paid a heavy and miserable price. Despite all the weirdness and his complex inability to cope with the world as it is (to say nothing of his body as it was), he was a human being made in the image of God and infinitely valuable – regardless of the judgements of those whose miserable lives are spent trying to destroy those who achieve something in life.

May he rest in a peace he never knew in life. And may he be remembered above all else for his wonderful artistry and the gift he gave the world through his music.

Michael Jackson